A review of Francois Ozon’s latest film Frantz for Wales Arts Review
Two lovers, head over heels in love, separated and heartbroken by war and circumstance, yearning to be reunited. We have seen this story many times captured on film, in books and in poetry. But not like this. The Cranes are Flying is one of the greats of Russian/Soviet cinema, a work of pure, fearless love for the medium. Mikhail Kalatozov and his cinematographer Sergey Urusevsky approach every scene as if it must be their last, wringing every last drop of visual drama from the frame, filling it with imagination. It’s unsurprisingly and unmistakeably a huge influence on Andrei Tarkovsky, whose debut feature Ivan’s Childhood came only a few years later, bearing many of the same stylistic fingerprints. And what fingerprints! Why settle for less when cinema like this makes everything around it look workmanlike and pedestrian in comparison.
Hayao Miyazaki’s last film (for now; I suspect he may be back in some capacity at some point, as such artists never truly retire) is also his furthest away from fantasy, based instead in the real world, a loose biopic of Japanese aeronautical engineer Jiro Horikoshi, who designed fighter planes for the Japanese army in the WWII. There are flaws here—after an entire career of strong female protagonists, it’s a shame Miyazaki relegates his main female character here to a ‘sacrificial wife’ role—but The Wind Rises is also his most personally revealing film. Critics who accuse the film of airbrushing Japan’s military history are slightly missing the point (are we that stupid as audiences that a film needs to tell us for certain that fascism sucks?); what we have instead is the work of an artist musing on the destructive capabilities of creation, when such desires overtake almost all other considerations.
Although his two previous feature films, The Skin I Live In (2011) and I’m So Excited (2013) marked a return somewhat to the more excitable, kitschy style of his ‘80s breakthrough films, Pedro Almodóvar’s latest film, Julieta sees the director back in more familiar territory, at least compared to his other 21st century works. This is indeed a luxurious, dramatic, pulsating piece of work from Almodóvar, with dense writing steeped in literary allusions and a piercing cinematic eye, taking in cross-generational loss and trauma, the ripples of guilt, and as so often in the director’s work, the surviving power of women.
The film stars two actresses as the titular character in different periods of her life: Emma Suárez and Adriana Ugarte as the older and younger incarnations respectively. Opening in modern-day Madrid, we are introduced to the elder Julieta, preparing to move to Portugal with her boyfriend Lorenzo (Dario Grandinetti). Her plans are derailed when she runs into Bea (Michelle Jenner), a childhood friend of her 12-years missing daughter, Antía, who tells her that Antía is still alive, living in Switzerland and with three children. The flood of memories proves too much; she cancels the move and recollects her memories in a journal. Then the film shifts to her younger self, a classical literature teacher on the train to Madrid, where she meets fisherman Xoan (Daniel Grao). Falling in love, she becomes pregnant with Antía and moves in with him, and all seems well until a storm one day breaks after an argument over Xoan’s infidelities, sinking his boat and him with it. The perspective then shifts directly to Julieta’s trauma and her cocooned relationship with her daughter as they move back to Madrid.
The foundations of Julieta’s plot machinations can be found in Almodóvar’s previous work; in All About My Mother (1999), Cecilia Roth returns to Barcelona from Madrid after losing her son, and the leaving behind of places of trauma is repeated here. So too is the motif of comatose partners, Xoan entering into the story with the admission that his wife has been in a coma for five years, a major element of Talk to Her (2002). If Volver (2006) is all about women rising above the tragedies and mistakes of men, then Julieta is the coin-flip of that: what happens when the tragedies become too much to bear? How does the person cope? Julieta works as a continued elaboration of many of Almodóvar’s favourite themes, drawing on his past work to create new angles from which to view the same ideas.
The men in Julieta’s life never quite seem to be entirely attached to Julieta herself. Xoan has his infidelities and his previous wife; her father falls in love with the much younger carer of Julieta’s ailing mother, much to Julieta’s anger. Lorenzo, as loyal and patient a man as she finds in the course of the film, never gets to know the true Julieta as she refuses to tell him about her past. Julieta closes in her on herself, shutting out the outside world, unable to find genuine closure with the ghosts of her past still looming.
The depth of the film is something to behold. Whilst Julieta perhaps lacks the narrative complexity of The Skin I Live In or the emotional gut-punch of All About My Mother, its remarkable how easy Almodóvar makes the whole thing look. Those familiar with his work don’t need to be told how immaculate the cinematography, production design, performances et. all are. Suffice to say there are plentiful incredible images here; most striking is Almodóvar’s decision to change from Ugarte to Suárez in one bold stroke, as one actress’s head is covered by a towel to dry off her hair, only for the other to appear afterwards, Julieta literally aging before our very eyes. Julieta might be standard Almodóvar these days, but an average film for the Spanish master is a brilliant one by anyone else’s standards.
Most of Luchino Visconti’s filmography consists of novel adaptations, often from major figures of European literature, giving his work the air of a hefty, serious, literary density that few filmmakers can match. Rocco & His Brothers is one of his few films not adapted from a novel (though it is inspired by a chapter in a novel by Giovanni Testori), yet it is one of his most complex and dense works, bathing in novelistic detail and melodrama over almost three hours.
It also represents something of the last burning embers of Italian Neorealism: Visconti stated in interviews that one of the primary inspirations for Rocco and His Brothers was Giovanni Verga’s I Malavoglia, the same text that inspired his second feature film, The Earth Trembles (1948), easily one of the most staunchly ‘neorealistic’ films produced during that brief but ever so crucial movement after the Second World War.
Although the movement died down in the early 50s, its influence on cinema since has been huge. Visconti may have been one of its earliest practitioners—his first film, Obsession (1943) is frequently cited as the first film of the movement—but he was also one of the first to move onto other modes. Rocco represents the closest he ever returned to Neorealism, but here he is with the added experience of almost 20 years as a filmmaker. No surprise then that it remains a stone-cold masterpiece.
The Rocco of the title is played by Alain Delon, on the cusp of his fame. He is the middle child of a family of five brothers who, along with their mother, relocate from Southern Italy to the urban metropolis of Milan, like so many others of their ilk during this time.
The divide between the thriving, economically rich, and cosmopolitan North of Italy versus the deprived, arid, and underdeveloped South has long been a concern for Italian cinema, arguably kick-started with the aforementioned The Earth Trembles. Visconti would return to the subject further in his work, particularly in The Leopard (1963), and his former assistant director, Francesco Rosi, would become a famed director in his own right, making his name with a series of films about the North-South divide. Here in Rocco, Visconti finds himself concerned with the aspect of assimilation. Many Southerners emigrated to the North and instead of prosperity found poverty, hard labour, and xenophobia. So it is for Rocco’s family. The film’s timescale takes place over a number of years however, and Visconti takes his time with familial detail, explaining how they gradually come to assimilate into the Milanese milieu, aided by the successful boxing exploits of Rocco and his older but more wayward brother Simone (Renato Salvatori).
Amongst this backdrop, Visconti sets up a film of simmering melodrama, pitting Rocco and Simone against each other as they fight for the attentions of Nadia (Annie Girardot). The film makes it clear, in no uncertain terms, that she is a prostitute, a fact that enraged censors in Italy at the time. There are five episodes, each named after one of the brothers and going in descending order by age, with each episode broadly telling the story from the point-of-view of one particular sibling. Through this device, Visconti creates a film that is initially about the past, about the history of the North-South divide and the family’s initial problems with assimilation; then changes it into one about the present, as the rift between Rocco and Simone deepens and affects the lives of everyone around them; then finally about the future, as the youngest sibling learns to feel the weight of his family’s story on his back.
Truth be told, Visconti at his best is a director of such novelistic depth and intelligence that it is difficult to do justice to his work without writing a book (Geoffrey Nowell-Smith has a very good one, it has to be said). The characters in his films are so strongly rooted in their locations—the fishermen and the sea in The Earth Trembles, the Sicilian aristocracy and the Sicilian countryside in The Leopard, the two doomed lovers and the wide open plains of the North in Obsession—and Rocco’s grounding of urban Milan is critical here too. Visconti’s cinema embodies detail and specificity, luxuriating in character and using that as a springboard for storytelling, rather than forcing characters into unnatural stories. In few other films has he ever been as complete and as engaging and as full-bodied as in Rocco and His Brothers.
One of cinema’s greatest aesthetes, Zhang Yimou’s first feature film showcases the director’s eye as fully-formed from the start. Red Sorghum begins as a sumptuously-shot fable, with Yimou’s muse and leading lady, Gong Li, being married off to a leprous winery-owner by her poverty-stricken parents in 1920s China. As she is carried along in her sedan, she falls in love with one of the carriers, played by Jiang Wen. Told by a narrator, the couple’s grandson, the film has a fable-like feel, as if part of a memory partially obscured by the dust of the Chinese countryside. The winery-owner mysteriously disappears (we never even see him onscreen), and Red Sorghum begins to focus on the tale of Gong Li, taking control of the winery, and her elemental, charged relationship with Jiang Wen, who fluctuates between alcoholic despondency and romantic fervour.
Unfortunately, Yimou’s skills as a painter of gorgeous cinematic images have always been limited by his rather conservative storytelling abilities. He would go on to make equally sumptuous and grandly ambitious wuxia films like Hero and House of Flying Daggers, again two gorgeously-shot films which suffer from a thematic conservatism. Here too, Red Sorghum begins to disintegrate towards the end, dovetailing into a war film where Japanese forces occupy and brutally oppress the area. The high-wire balance of gorgeous imagery and melodrama that Yimou achieves in the first two-thirds of the film is thrown away in favour of a simplistically manipulative third act set against the backdrop of war. It’s a shame, because although the sheer poetry of the film’s images are never less than breathtaking, the thematic conservatism and simplicity with which Red Sorghum finishes is wholly dissatisfying.
It’s a John Ford film that isn’t a Western, so that Mogambo isn’t awful is already a success. Then remind yourself that it’s a 1950s Hollywood film set in Africa – making casual racism almost guaranteed! – and that there are clearly scenes of animals being grossly mistreated during the production shoot, and it’s actually a wonder Mogambo is halfway decent at all. In fact, if you strip away the African setting (and the implicit colonialist/Western gaze that goes with it), what you ultimately have here is a fairly decent romantic love-triangle pot-boiler of a film. When that love triangle happens to feature Clark Gable, Grace Kelly, and Ava Gardner (the former two being some of the finest human specimens ever placed in front of a camera, the latter a damn fine actor herself), and is being directed by John Ford, well…Mogambo could have been much worse is all I’m saying.
A film of two-and-a-bit halves: the first a relatively straight drama about an ailing, senile, old lady, Aurora (Laura Soveral), her housemaid (Isabel Cardoso), and her next-door neighbour (Teresa Madruga), the second told in flashback by an old lover of hers, the story of their time together in rural colonial Portuguese Africa. The first section is fine enough, an interesting, if relatively static story about aging in modern Lisbon. The second half however, is simply one of the most breathtakingly beautiful and challenging pieces of pure cinema I have seen in recent years. Told purely in voiceover narration, with no diegetic dialogue, it plays like an old Hollywood silent film. Yet its setting in colonial Africa, and the implicitly subjective tone of the narration warrants constant questioning of the motives and behaviour of the characters: are they genuinely in love, or are they just experiencing the same kind of adventure that the movies beg us to experience? The sheer beauty of it is alluring, but one is always pushed back by the implicit context; giving into the beauty means giving into a dream that turned out to be a nightmare for a huge number of people. Therein lies the brilliance of Tabu.
Lisa (Joan Fontaine), a young girl in Vienna falls in love with concert pianist Stefan Brand (Louis Jordan) from afar, and spends the next 15 years of her life yearning after him. Like that other great unrequited romance film of the 1940s, David Lean’s Brief Encounter, Letter from an Unknown Woman regards love as a fated thing, but is a much better film. Whereas Brief Encounter seems to treat conservative societal pressures as the invisible hand of fate holding our lovers apart, resulting in a stuffy, archaic film, Max Ophüls directs the lovers in Letter from an Unknown Woman as victims of a higher, mystical force, with exquisitely-designed tracking shots and a vision of opulent, pre-Great-War Vienna compatriots in the grander tragedy.
Broken Embraces offers a good overview of many of the elements of latter-day Pedro Almodóvar – the complex flashback narrative, the heightened melodrama, and the Douglas Sirk-by-way-of-Hitchcock visual stylings – and as ever with the great director, it’s a fantastic showcase of a man in such control and confidence in his abilities that it is impossible for much to go wrong. It’s also a superb vehicle for the versatile talents of Penélope Cruz; where she played a tough but empathetic mother in Volver, the pair’s previous collaboration, here she channels the glamour and timeless beauty of many a great Hollywood starlet from Audrey Hepburn to Rita Hayworth to Marilyn Monroe with aplomb. Broken Embraces isn’t quite top-tier Almodóvar in the way that Talk to Her or All About My Mother are, but it is a fine example of one of the greatest directors of all time simply doing what he does best: telling stories.