Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Double Life of Veronique (1991) - Directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski

Flashback 10 years ago to me in college at The University of Illinois. When I wasn’t in the classroom, I was spending lots of time watching films. I remember spending a great deal of time at the Urbana Public Library perusing their massive collection of VHS tapes, which included an incredible volume of classic American and foreign films. Many of the first viewings I had of films by Bergman, Godard, Bunuel etc. occurred because I rented these videos, often by the dozen at a time from the library. And they were free! I distinctly remember the day that while flipping through their titles, I was going through the “D” section and I came across The Double Life of Veronique. Thinking back, I’m pretty sure I had seen The Three Colors trilogy, but was completely unaware of this film. Criterion hadn’t yet picked it up. It wasn’t on Roger Ebert’s Great Film list yet. Blogs weren’t yet discussing the virtues of films like this. Even Leonard Maltin’s book only gave it 2 ½ stars out of 4. I remember looking at the cover, though, and thinking wow this looks like something I should see, but not having any expectations at all for what it would be like. It would turn out to be one of the most significant film viewings I would ever have. 

Kieslowski’s film regards the story of two women, both played by Irene Jacob. Weronika lives in Poland and aspires to have a great singing career. Veronique lives in France and decides to not pursue a particular talent (perhaps singing), but is instead a music school teacher. These women are presented to us as having a cosmic connection of sorts that we can't fully understand. The film is an examination of the spiritual, emotional, and physical connections between the two women, and a working out of the concept of these women either being two separate beings connected supernaturally, or perhaps the same woman living two separate lives. This interconnectedness of life is of course something that Kieslowski would explore and refine further in his more literal and political The Three Colors Trilogy which would follow this film. What sets The Double Life of Veronique apart is that Kieslowski attempts to let his story unfold relying almost solely on images, music, and emotions, which all but take the place of explanation and dialogue in this film. It's not dialogue here that you remember, it's the images and feelings that overwhelm you.

I distinctly remember watching the film back then in 2002. I was blown away by the look of the film, with its odd color palette of yellows, greens and reds.  Its very nature screamed of an incessant yearning to convey an ineffable set of themes, emotions, and desires. I was humbled and inspired by Kieslowski’s story, Slawomir Idziak’s cinematography, and Irene Jacob’s luminescent performance. My college-age uncertainties and fears were inexplicably met and eased by the transcendentally sensual nature of the film. It didn’t really matter that I didn’t understand it. In fact, I didn't really want to understand it. This made it all the more alluring. I wanted to disappear into it, be absorbed by it, and remain lost in its swirl and never return.

But I have returned to see it again, something I did recently for the first time in 10 years. A lot has changed in those 10 years. Criterion has it now. Roger Ebert has included it on his list. It has gained in stature, whereas in 2002, I felt like the only one who knew about it. Watching it again so many years separated, I was pleased to learn that it still maintains a significant power for me. In fact, watching it this time on DVD I was really struck by just how visually overwhelming it is. Rarely does a minute go by without a unique visual style or theme coming to the fore. As much effort as most films spend on dialogue or action, this film spends twice the effort on visual composition and innovation. Idziak’s cinematography employs yellow filters, which give the film its unique color palatte, creating lots of shades of green and yellow. Recurring motifs of upside down images, duplicated images, and the instances of “emotional establishings” (as Idziak puts it in one of the DVD’s supplements) or shots presented unrelated to the action in order to establish an emotion, are often jarring, but are always absorbing and essential to the way the film works. Of course, Zbigniew Preiner's remarkable score adds tremendous depth and emotional punch to the images that flash by. For those who care, this film also contains a great deal of relatedness to The Three Colors Trilogy regarding images and themes that pop up in those films.

I haven’t even yet discussed much about Jacob’s performance, which is rather remarkable for the way she brings the film’s emotion to life. There really isn’t much exposition to help us understand Weronika/Veronique, but we don’t need to know because Jacob helps us understand what is essential without needing to say anything. She embodies and reflects the ambition of the film to convey a feeling and emotion with a modicum of explanation. Sometimes, movies feel more like experiences and this is one of those experience-type films for me. It's also one of my top 25 favorite films. There just isn't anything else quite like it.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Brief Encounter (1945) - Directed by David Lean

Brief Encounter is one of those films that is concurrently a romance film, but perhaps even more, a brooding psychological study of relational torment. Lean’s film is probably the granddaddy of all the tragically transient love stories ever filmed, along with Casablanca (1942). Lean’s film though, is perhaps more psychologically fraught than most, as the blossoming love between the man and woman is contrasted by their anguish stemming from both of them being married to others. This dichotomy between their love for each other and the anguish they feel because of it makes the film simultaneously romantic, distressing and deeply observant. It's one of Lean’s greatest films.

Celia Johnson stars as Laura, housewife and mother of 2 children. We meet her at the beginning of the film in a train station, sitting with Alec (Trevor Howard) when an acquaintance interrupts their meeting. Alec leaves the table, places a hand on Laura’s shoulder and leaves for a train. Little do we realize that they have been carrying on an affair, and THAT was their parting moment. Lean’s film then recounts, in a somewhat disjointed fashion, how they meet, how they begin to connect and fall in love, and then their inner turmoil that is played out in their struggle to carry on an impossible affair, one which it seems they both know will never be consummated.

Lean’s film often plays more like a film noir of sorts than a traditional romance. Partly this stems from a certain aspect that incorporates narration on the part of Laura, inviting us into her inner thoughts and struggles. Furthermore, the flashback structure and to an even greater degree, the lighting and shadows often feel very much like film noir, especially in scenes at the train station. I think it’s this shadowy quality that gives the film an element of danger and suspense, keeping the film far from any soapy, melodramatic aspects and instead providing more of a darker impact to the doomed affair. Therefore, to call it a straight romance film is painting it into a corner. 

Brief Encounter is ultimately a very depressing and distressing film. There is a certain guilt and hopelessness explored, especially on the part of the Laura character, which remains unshakable and ultimately that which speaks the loudest. There’s a moment when she says, “I want to die. If only I could die.” There is no comfort for her. She cannot shake his passion and only death itself could relieve her. The fact that it appears that the affair remains unconsummated is due to Laura’s refusal to relent to her desires. Her moral compass remains directed toward her husband even though her physical and psychological desires remain fixated on Alec. One gets the sense that Laura is rather sorry that her relationship with Alec ever began in the first place. It would appear that it has done nothing but create and breed a dissatisfaction with the status quo, and will be a torment to her until her dying day- this fact that she cannot have this man that she so desperately wants. Celia Johnson is able to convey this turmoil throughout her remarkably reserved and composed performance and it remains a brilliant character study to this day. Helping the film along is also Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 as it punctuates the proceedings in memorable fashion. 

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

49th Parallel (1941) - Directed by Michael Powell

Of Powell and Pressburger’s earlier films, 49th Parallel is not just one of their most enthralling and absorbing pieces of cinema, it is one of the most fascinating war films from the WWII era. At the time, they were commissioned to create an anti-Nazi propaganda film that might have encouraged America to join the war. They set out to create their film using an international cast, gorgeous on-location shooting in Canada, and employing one of the most fascinating plots and set of protagonists that this era ever produced as far as WWII films go. I had seen this film once before several years ago, but I sure didn't appreciate as much as I did during this second viewing.

49th Parallel involves a fictional story of a German submarine which has invaded Canadian waters and has decided to hunker down in Hudson Bay in order to allow time to gather food and supplies from a nearby company store. While a search party has left the submarine, the Canadian air force bombs the submarine while it is afloat, thus marooning the Nazi search party on land. These soldiers then embark on an odyssey of sorts to preserve themselves and survive at all costs. Throughout the film, the Nazis encounter many people and situations, all of which highlight various intentions of the Nazi regime, as well as the prevailing argument against the regime, thus allowing the argument against to play out in surprising detail.

There are three key setpieces, each involving a cameo of sorts by a terrific actor. Laurence Olivier plays Scottie, a French Canadian trapper hanging out at the Hudson Bay Company store with an old friend when the Nazis arrive. This sequence, although somewhat undermined by Olivier’s awful accent, highlights not just the swift brutality of the Nazi soldiers as they beat an Eskimo, shoot people in the back including women and children, but this sequence also highlights Nazism’s troublesome attitude toward religion. During his dying breath, Scottie threatens to send missionaries their way when the war is over. The second, and probably best setpiece, and also most compelling portion of the film, is set in a German Hutterite community that the Nazis encounter along their travels through Canada, thinking they may find a kinship with their German brethren. The Nazis give an impassioned speech to the community, calling upon their brotherhood to join in the Nazi purpose, but their words fall on deaf ears. In an even more intense response, Anton Walbrook as Peter, one of the Hutterites, calls them out as the socially constricting and morally reprehensible scourge that they are.  His speech is probably the best anti-Nazi propaganda moment in the film and a brilliant monologue from one of the most intense of actors. In the third key setpiece, as the Nazi group is down to 2, they come across Leslie Howard as Phillip Scott, a writer and outdoor aficionado in Banff National Park who is camping. Howard surrounds himself in his tent with art and books, which of course the Nazis debase and burn with pleasure when they turn on him, highlighting the stamping-out of individual expression.

All of these elements were of course used for propaganda, but it’s thoughtful propaganda woven into a tight, thrilling narrative. Not only is the action suspenseful, a la Hitchcock or Reed, it’s filled with the kind of filmmaking flourishes that Powell and Pressburger are known for, thus making it both a first rate WWII thriller and a thoughtful piece of historical propaganda. By making the Nazis into the protagonists, we must urgently come to grips with their immediacy and reality. They are not faceless enemies in the distance. They’re looking right at you. It’s hard to view this type of film within the proper context in which it was originally shown and to really understand what it might have meant back in 1941. But even today, the film stands as a lasting reminder of how propaganda was used and is also one of the finest WWII films of its era.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Red Shoes (1948) - Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

If The Red Shoes isn’t the greatest film ever about artistic obsession, I’m not sure what is. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s masterful tour-de-force is also arguably their best film, although I have a very difficult time choosing between this one and Black Narcissus (1947), among several other films in their canon. Their films have a way of completely enwrapping you in cinematic intensity, be it through charm, romance, inspiration, subversion, suspense, horror, fear. It’s this intensity of emotion that gives The Red Shoes so much feeling and flamboyance, while maintaining something resembling civility and restraint when needed, keeping this film from being wildly erratic. Instead, it is as cinematically urgent as any film in history.

Based on Hans Christian Anderson’s fable, The Red Shoes concerns the convergence of three key characters. One is Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), director of a ballet company. He’s intense and filled with a kind of demonic obsession to find both a perfection in a ballet production, and also to find the prima ballerina to help achieve such perfection. Another is Julian Craster (Marius Goring), a talented but uncredited composer who is hired by Boris after convincing him that his work has been pilfered from his current composer. The third is the dancer, Victoria Page (Moira Shearer). She remains fairly unnoticed by Boris until he sees her perform in a small, local production of Swan Lake where he notices her drive and intensity. He soon takes her under his wing and convinces her to be the lead in a new ballet he’s planning, called The Red Shoes, being composed by Julian. Soon, the three of them enter into a sort of love triangle. Vicky falls in love her composer, while Boris maintains that she should be devoted to her work and art, and thus to him. Vicky is torn, literally, between love and art.

Relaying the plot is rather bland when compared to the virtuosity with which the film is presented. I just watched the Blu-Ray of this film, and was again reminded that, yes, The Red Shoes is one of the 5 most beautiful color films ever photographed. Jack Cardiff’s cinematography simply takes my breath away, continually. Powell and Pressburger give the film a brilliant emphasis toward dance, providing atmosphere that feels as authentic as any, regarding the backstage banter and practice sessions. I know many people don’t really think of this film as a musical. I do, if for nothing else than the astounding 15 minute “Red Shoes Ballet” sequence that is not only the greatest dance sequence I’ve ever seen on film, but also one of the truly virtuosic cinematic experiences that one will ever see. This ballet scene is presented as a nearly fluid sequence. It is probably the first and greatest example of dance (0r song) choreographed over a lengthy run time (and influenced Gene Kelly into creating an extended ballet in An American in Paris (1951)). At the beginning of the ballet, the perspective is presented to us as if we’re in the audience and the dancers appear onstage before us where Vicky Page dances and is beguiled by a pair of red ballet shoes in the shop of a local cobbler/magician. Little does she know that these shoes have a mind of their own. Soon, we notice that the scene leaves the realism of a theatre presentation, and enters a cinematic universe where it is free to roam and breathe. We see a mirror image of Vicky in a window, the shoes magically enwrap her feet, she floats through a dreamy landscape, there’s a beautiful slow-motion sequence, she dances with a newspaper and on and on the scene goes with flamboyant propulsion and emotion. Not only is the music, choreography and cinematography in this scene unparalleled, it also contains the essential component of the psyche of the dancer. Vicky’s paranoia and passion are reflected throughout the scene as she hallucinates visions of Julian and Boris, appearing at will. We realize that this ballet is paralleling and presaging personal moments from her life.

Moira Shearer’s presence is best felt during her dancing performances or the extreme emotional close-ups that Cardiff frames so well. But, it’s Anton Wallbrook’s performance as Boris that really stands out, not only as the best performance in the film, but one of the all-time great performances in any film. His possessiveness and slightly cool way of telling someone off gives him a simultaneously creepy and gentile quality. One of his best moments comes as he gives an impassioned and measured speech to the theatre audience at the end of the film, following an intense tragedy. His cadence and projection during this moment are truly memorable. Boris’ insistence upon pure devotion to art which is unfettered and uncluttered by human love is a maniacal obsession and domination which he tries to enact upon Vicky. At first, she loves art and shuns love, ensconcing herself as his artistic lover. When she trades in her ballet shoes for the sake of Julian’s love, she betrays Boris, not just artistically, but emotionally and physically as well. Of course, Boris’ control over Vicky, parallels the red shoes' control over the dancer in the ballet in a perfect symmetry of terror. Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes is about as essential as they get and is unequaled in so many ways. It demands to be seen by anyone who loves cinema, dance or art of any kind.

I end this essay with a visual tribute to The Red Shoes Ballet.