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Tuesday, 21 June 2016

A Cinephile's Diary - Shaun Heenan unearths Monsieur Verdoux and two movies titled Seduced and Abandoned

Serious Young Cinephile Shaun Heenan currently lives at South West Rocks in northern New South Wales. His reviews and reports discovering cinema old and new have been published on this Film Alert 101 blog since November 2015. His other posts can be found by clicking the posts on the side or using the search engine. 

This week’s Criterion selection on Fandor was called ‘Comedies That Bite’, focusing on comedies with potentially-touchy subject matter. I watched a pair of them: one a minor success, one just a bit too ugly for my tastes. Comedy in general is probably the least consistent genre for me. A sense of humour is a very personal thing, and even diving back into the classics, I find even well-respected comedies very hit or miss. It’s hard to go too wrong with a good Chaplin, though.

And that’s where we start: with Monsieur Verdoux (Charles Chaplin, USA, 1947), in which Chaplin abandons the long-beloved Tramp character of his silent years to play a serial killer. Chaplin’s character, loosely inspired by actual French murderer Henri Désiré Landru, holds a number of identities and a number of well-off wives, each of whom disappear quickly after being convinced to empty their bank accounts. Chaplin does all of this with a wry grin and a spring in his step, fully aware of the reaction contemporary audiences would have to the pitch-black humour. He reportedly opened a press conference for the film by telling those present to ‘proceed with the butchering’. Indeed, the film did not review well at the time, but it still managed to earn an Oscar nomination for writing.

Today, it’s easier to laugh along with the film. It’s all the funnier for how wildly out of character it seems for Chaplin. It’s not as funny as his best silent work, and it’s not half as witty or charming as Robert Hamer’s similarly-themed Kind Hearts and Coronets (UK, 1949), but it’s still good enough to earn a recommendation from me. Curiously, Chaplin’s character makes a speech near the end about how his series of crimes are nothing compared to those of governments and weapons manufacturers across the world, and the systems which allow them to prosper. It’s hard for me to tell if there’s a tongue-in-cheek aspect to this, as he mirrors the direct messaging seen in his own The Great Dictator (USA, 1940), or if he genuinely intended to vilify the entire world. It may be a little of both.

I was less amused by Seduced and Abandoned (Pietro Germi, Italy, 1964), which is intended as a very dark satire of Sicilian society, but is ultimately filled with too much ugly material to offer much else. As the film opens, a 15-year-old girl is raped (and it is absolutely rape, despite most of the characters failing to recognise it) by her sister’s fiancée. The resulting pregnancy apparently threatens the family’s honour, so the girl’s father spends the rest of the film beating his daughter, calling her a whore and trying to force her to marry her rapist. I understand the film is condemning these actions, and we’re supposed to find the insanity of the situation funny, but it’s hard to laugh with a mouth full of vomit.

In lieu of saying more about a film I hated, I’ll take the chance to recommend a better film by the same title, which I did not watch this week. Seduced and Abandoned (James Toback, USA, 2013) is a particularly clever hoax documentary set at the Cannes Film Festival. Toback exposes the ugly realities of film financing by tricking producers into turning down his pretend film Last Tango in Tikrit, described as a remake of Bertolucci’s film. Alec Baldwin boldly plays along as the film’s alleged star, since he knows definitively that his name is not big enough to attract even the modest budget they are asking for. It’s a truly incisive documentary that shows how mechanical the art world actually is and, as a bonus, it didn’t make me want to throw up.

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