Sunday 29 March 2015

Carol - Todd Haynes adds Patricia Highsmith, circa 1948, to his retro looks

Let me fill you in with a para from the excellent biography “Beautiful Shadow” by Andrew Wilson (Bloomsbury, 2003): In December 1948...(Patricia Highsmith) was working temporarily in the toy Department of Bloomingdale’s when into the store walked an elegant woman wearing a mink coat. That initial encounter lasted no longer than a few minutes, yet its effect on Highsmith was dramatic. After serving the woman, who bought a doll for one of her daughters, leaving her delivery details, Highsmith later confessed to feeling ‘odd and swimmy in the head, near to fainting, yet at the same time uplifted as if I had seen a vision’. At the end of her shift she went home and wrote the plot for The Price of Salt, published in 1952 under a pseudonym (Clare Morgan), and, in 1990, re-issued under her own name as Carol.”

Sometime in 2014 Todd Haynes began shooting a film version with Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, titled Carol and if you want to know as much as anyone knows about the venture, which I imagine is heading for Cannes in a month or two, you can go here to youtube where you will find a couple of beautifully assembled sequences of stills, set to songs sung gently by Billie Holiday and Nat King Cole, which indicate at least that the film is full of some gorgeous design and art decoration. Its a specialty of Haynes and those who have seen his earlier, Poison (1991), Far From Heaven (2002), I'm Not There (2007) and his fine TV mini-series, Mildred Pierce (2011) will need no convincing that he can get the surfaces right.  I hope you dont mind hopeless adoration but the continued fascination with Highsmith is one of my fetishes, tropes, whatever you want to call it. This is not a lonely task. The playwright Joanna Murray-Smith is another devotee as this earlier post on the Film Alert blog indicates.

Friday 27 March 2015

The Current Cinema - Zvyagintsev's Leviathan - A quick enthusiastic note about the best film of the year thus far

Andre Zvyagintsev's Leviathan  is thus far the film of the year and it made a lot more sense to me after reading John McDonald's review in today's (Saturday 28th March) Australian Financial Review. The benefits of a classical education come through at times and I'm always impressed when someone can pull these threads and allusions together to enhance appreciation. Zvyagintsev's career till now has focused on the wreckage created in post-communist Russia. He yearns in some unspecified way for spiritual values to come to the fore. In his last two films (I haven't seen his 2007 film, The Banishment), Elena (2011) and now Leviathan (2014), he has assembled  two galleries of crooks, thieves, corrupt officials, layabouts and opportunists. The amount of vodka they consume is prodigious and everybody smokes incessantly. You can understand why Russian average life expectancy has fallen into the sixties. These galleries are presented with a quietude that belies the stupendous sense of close to the surface violence that infects virtually every scene, even those involving what otherwise might seem to be simple family pleasures.

Elena was a film with a sharp and daring plot of a woman well into middle-age whose well-being is threatened and who chooses the side of her oafish, drunken, unemployed son, rather than that of her latest husband, a well off former military officer whose standard of living in retirement suggests a former life spent breaking the rules for self-aggrandisement. The machinations of the various family members, on each side, were lethal. Leviathan is grander in its ambitions (which is where John McDonald's writing is so good) and fearless in its symbolic elements - most especially the beached whale, the ruined church used as a secret drinking hole by the local youth and the picture of Putin perfectly positioned so as to provide a modern iconic halo behind the head of the overweight and ruddy-faced mayor and political fixer who runs the show in this far-flung outpost on the sea.

You keep thinking all this is going to somehow slowly reveal wrong being righted but (slight spoiler alert)  'fraid not. The bad guys win.

...and there were no difficulties in getting the film into competition at Cannes and nominating it for a Foreign-Language Oscar. Holding the new Russia up to this sort of piercing light doesn't worry a state where the state just kills its enemies in broad daylight.

Australian Movies - Measuring Success - A couple of case studies derived from the new measuring tool the Film Impact Rating

The last time this matter was blogged about Bruce Hodsdon had promised to have a further look at all the material  about Film Impact Ratings (FIR) and, if he felt able, would produce some further analysis. This he has done at this site. (You might need to cut and paste the address)
In addition to making further suggestions about the way the FIR index may be interpreted and deployed Bruce has included two examples linking empirical data with ratings (Mystery Road with The Great Gatsby and Mystery Road with Wolf Creek 2). In this regard, as I read Bruce's note I was reminded of the huge support The Great Gatsby garnered just before its worldwide opening (see Example 1) most notably via its selection as the Opening Night film at the Cannes Film Festival.

As a preface it is worth quoting the researchers' aims in proposing a FIR system as a "desire to take a more holistic approach to film impact that extends beyond one metric that matters, i.e.,the domestic box office. Of course with this in mind it is important that care is taken in providing underlying values linked to each of the thre aspects that are then weighted to generate the overall FIR. We have certainly aimed to be transparent in both our approach and motives to use FIR (and the online tool to gain more insight into what is generally viewed as important in rating a film's impact." (Dr Bronwyn Coates, 18/3/15)

To catch up with what has gone before and find all the links to earlier posted documents,go to 

Wednesday 25 March 2015

Electric Shadows Bookshop closes

One of Canberra's greatest little institutions, a place where books were loved, where stock was acquired because the proprietors wanted to test the market for the unusual and the challenging, where some fine people got their first jobs or did shifts to tide them over until later success occurred. It was patronised by all and sundry (including at one time a Governor-General who regularly sent in for carefully selected videos and DVDs of the classics and the modern dramas that only ESB had on its shelves) is apparently gone. Not sure what it's a victim of but you can read a  near tear-inducing obituary from the Canberra Times if you click on this link.

The Bookshop was close to this family's heart for many years. Founded by Karen Foley and Andrew Pike, it started life in a tiny space in the old Canberra Playhouse before shifting to an out of the way shopfront upstairs in the Boulevard building. Its big break came when the shop next to the Electric Shadows cinema closed and the Bookshop grabbed the space. The synergy of cinema-going and bookshopping helped both venues and for quite some time things boomed. But all things end and the cinema's days were numbered with the planned arrival of a new venue in the Civic car park. The bookshop moved to Braddon then but, as the article says, things continued to change. Life can be a bastard at times

Sunday 22 March 2015

Future Feminist Archive Symposium - Report and link to the Symposium

On 6 April a panel discussion took place at the AGNSW as part of the Contemporary Art and Feminism (CAF) Future Feminist Archive Symposium.

In the session, filmmakers Martha Ansara, Margot Nash and Jeni Thornley return to their feminist origins and discuss some of the groundbreaking films they produced in the 1970s. Individual presentations include clips from Film for Discussion (Martha Ansara with the Sydney Women’s Film Group 1973), We Aim To Please (Robin Laurie and Margot Nash 1976) and Maidens (Jeni Thornley 1978). Joining them is emerging filmmaker Natalie Krikowa who suggests that these pioneering women laid the foundations upon which a new generation of feminist filmmakers, like her, now stand. Other key films from the period such as My Survival as an Aboriginal (Essie Coffey 1978), Size 10 (Sarah Gibson and Susan Lambert 1978) and For Love or Money (Megan McMurchy, Margot Nash, Margot Oliver and Jeni Thornley 1983) are also discussed. The panel highlights the importance of recognising Australian women’s film history and current practice by working towards the creation of a digital-online space, providing scholars and film-arts-media related organisations with an invaluable research and study tool. Film scholar Sarah Attfield chairs the session.

Margot Nash has now edited the footage from the AGNSW Symposium.  You can look at it by clicking on this  Vimeo link.  

National Film & Sound Archive - Oral Histories and More

It’s been some little time since I sent anything out about the National Film & Sound Archive. Developments and decisions that followed the staff reductions, the production of the Draft Strategic Plan and the consultations which followed appear to be yet to be finalised notwithstanding that it is close to a year since all this activity started.

There is one matter that may interest many of you who signed the original submission protesting about some of these matters. You may have been involved in the NFSA’s Oral History Program and may therefore be interested to know that this week the NFSA ‘s  website will be devoting attention  to a selection of oral history interviews with journalists, musicians, actors, directors and film crew. Each day this week will be devoted to one group. Today, Monday 23 March its journalists and those selected are Leigh Sales, Jeff McMullen and Sandra Sully. Without wishing to pre-empt your selection I would particularly recommend the interview with actor Bruce Spence on Wednesday and not just because it was moi who was asking the questions!!! You can find the NFSA front page  here  today’s page on journalists here  and some background on the program here

To those of you who keep asking me what’s happening to what once seemed like revolutionary change at breakneck and uncontrolled pace, I can only say I hope that there will be further reports and public discussion on NFSA matters still to come.  Change has taken place in many areas of the institution not least amongst Board appointments. Arts Minister George Brandis has not renewed any of those who were on the NFSA Board when he came to office and has appointed Peter Rose, Toni Cody and Paul Neville to take up the cudgels. Two more Board members terms expire shortly.

Saturday 21 March 2015

The Last Hammer Blow & The Connection - A final note from the 2015 French Film Festival

Max Berghouse writes:
The Last Hammer Blow (Le Dernier Coup du Marteau, Alix Delaporte, France, 2015, 83 minutes) is a French coming-of-age drama set in the south of France outside the city of Montpellier. Victor played by Romain Paul is a 13, near 14-year-old traversing the path to maturity, living in something that approximates to the European equivalent of a trailer park with his single and apparently cancer-affected mother and, partly by force of circumstance and partly by desire, tries to reconnect with his birth father, a noted classical music conductor. Additionally, if he is selected for a soccer training program, there is some prospect of his situation radically improving. And of course there is the love interest, almost certainly unrequited, with a young Spanish teenager, Luna, living in the next caravan.

The young male lead (Romain Paul) is simply stunning. Working with an extremely spare script, he displays a range of emotion which one would not expect from one so young. No doubt he is somewhat older than the age of the character he plays, but he remains absolutely convincing. His natural father carries a Slavic sounding name and the young man himself has a more or less considerable resemblance to his "father" as well as, at least to me a distinctively Slavic appearance.

The back story of his parents is not entirely well integrated in that it does not make overwhelming sense, but this is not a problem because it is his story and not that of his parents.

Everything plays out with exceptional integrity and with restraint. The camera and development remain to some extent distanced from the plot – they remain objective rather than subjective. By this I mean that there is no attempt at cheap emotion. At the end young Victor seems to have the opportunity of fulfillment or at least greater security, without it being inflicted unnecessarily on what has gone before. There remains a hard edge.

I thought this film an absolute charmer.

Our last film of the French film Festival, on the last day, is proof to the view that different people, with equal sensitivity, intelligence and experience can come to radically different views. My companion was enthralled with The Connection (La French, Cedric Jiminez, France, 2014, 135 minutes) as high tension drama but to me it is no more than an adequate actioner. Concerned with the French perspective of The French Connection relating to drug exports to the USA from Marseilles, it tracks the fight of the incorruptible French magistrate Pierre Michel (Jean Dujardin) who of course comes from out of town into a city effectively bought and sold by the local mafia under Gaetan Zampa (Gilles Lellouche), two  actors so physically similar at least to me that on several occasions I was not sure who was who.

There is absolutely no sense of fear or danger in the display of the city "sold to the other side". Brazen murders committed in broad daylight evoked my response that it was probably easier to make the shoot (photographic shoot!) in daylight.

Listed at 135 minutes, it seemed much longer and apparently the director Cedric Jiminez is still continuing to edit the film for commercial release. It is set in the early to mid 1970s and has a professional if superficial gloss of period features. Late 1960s and early 1970s cars appear strategically placed (one, a white MGB roadster appears in 5 or 6 seasons which are clearly unrelated, so that appears to be a fill in) and men's fashions of the period: wide lapels on the suit coats, mainly polyester, a plethora of tacky coloured Prince of Wales check materials, all indicate little more than some superficial care and attention with period. Interior sets for example of nightclubs probably have the same superficial reality; I'm probably too young to remember.

Characterisation is paper thin and this is not helped by numbers of characters looking very similar – and acting similarly. "Of course" (I use this deliberately as I'm sure you can see where this is going, the plot is entirely predictable) for about the 1st hour the police get nowhere and it's obvious to the audience that there is a stoolie within police force ranks. I think this is the case, or maybe it is because this plot line is so familiar we automatically leap to it. The honest police take an immeasurably long time to let the magistrate know the real state of affairs. Having indicated that, the viewing time is too long, it's also the case that exposition following the reveal of internal corruption, is very truncated and choppy and really needs quite a bit more material to make it flow well.

No one should compare this film with any other, especially the classic The French Connection because it stands on its own feet as a perfectly pleasant way to spend an afternoon, provided one gives oneself the gift of coffee and a brioche as a reward afterwards.

One of the great advantages of France as a film-going culture, is that films like this, more or less competent and professional, can find a ready audience which will find it satisfactory if forgettable. It doesn't deserve further attention.

Friday 20 March 2015

Malcolm Fraser and I - a memoir...or "who is George Gear?"

"Who is George Gear?" It was a question asked by my then boss Gareth Evans when, preparatory to heading for Canberra for the election count he asked me to draw up a list of Labor candidates likely to be elected if, always a big if, any kind of uniform swing, of the type indicated by the current polling, was on. Labor was doing it on the bit and looked likely to get somewhere between 52 and 53% of the 2PP vote.

Sometime during the last few days of that campaign, way back in 1983, I wandered around the corner from our office to the open space in front of the AMP Building in Collins Street. Malcolm Fraser and his supporters were due to have a rally there at lunchtime. Fraser got up and blustered his way through ten minutes or so of the usual nonsense that Liberal politicians spout when they have to give a stump speech but he did say one thing that attracted attention. It went something like; "If Labor gets elected you would be better off putting your money under the bed than in a bank!' Whoever thought it up for him has never come forward and volunteered the information. Or maybe Malcolm himself came up with this piece of mind-numbing stupidity. I can believe that.

Things moved on. By that night Bob Hawke had pulled out a somewhat puerile response to Malcolm's assertion along the lines of ' you cant put your money under the bed because that's where the commies are!" Hilarious! But it went over a treat on the evening news. Score the day for Bob in the news cycle. Richard Farmer very quickly let it be known that it was his line. Winners are grinners. But it was the moment when all was lost and Fraser slid downhill and out of public, or at least parliamentary, life. His exit was marked in one other way that distinguished him from both predecessors and successors. He blubbed on election light. Broke down and bawled. The hard man had a soft centre. And the then unknown West Australian George Gear made it into Parliament, a knife-edge margin but the swing was just enough.  Given his humble origins, he rose to fairly dizzying heights.  The former teacher of electrical trades was made a Minister by Paul Keating and served a term as Assistant Treasurer. He won his seat each time the Hawke or Keating Governments were elected, serving five 'occasions' as they are described in the Parliamentary Superannuation legislation.

I never liked Malcolm Fraser and I didn't go for his re-invention of himself as concerned citizen. I acknowledge that he was tough on any kind of racism and is known to have put people like Sir John Carrick, who favoured supporting the white supremacist regimes in South Africa and Southern Rhodesia well and truly in their place when they tried to suggest that Australia take a benign and tolerant view of them.  And I often wondered if Fraser spotted that fleck of prejudice that John Howard has in him, the fleck that produced his notorious view about Asian immigration and no doubt contributed to his disgraceful actions towards refugees and the Tampa. It may have been that that caused Fraser to ensure that Howard got nowhere with any agenda he was running when Treasurer and contributed to his reputation as the worst Treasurer since Federation and the one who told the biggest lie about the state of the books when he left office. But I digress....

Now Malcolm's gone. And it seems that the days of 1975 and the damage done to the democratic and constitutional structures by Fraser and his mates Kerr, Barwick, Anthony, Nixon, Withers, Sinclair, Lynch et al seem to be just about forgotten as well. Gough was forgiving. Too forgiving but that's a measure of a great man. Maybe we need Mark Latham or John Faulkner to speak at Malcolm's funeral and set a few things straight.

Wednesday 18 March 2015

Adrienne McKibbins previews the likely Hindi Hit DETECTIVE BYOMKESH BAKSHY

DETECTIVE BYOMKESH BAKSHY (Dibakar Bannerjee, India, 2015) opens around the world on April 3. Hindi cinema expert Adrienne McKibbins has sent a note below about the film and its director.
Dibakar Banerjee is one of the new breed of Indian film makers. He is both a director and screenwriter known initially for, Khosla Ka Ghosla (2006) and Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! (2008), Both these films were critically well received both winning  National Film Awards. In 2010, he made his third film, Love Sex aur Dhokha, where one of the three sub-plots in the movie is loosely based on the infamous 2004 Delhi Multi-Media Messaging Service scandal.

Love Sex aur Dhokha (LSD),which won him critical acclaim was India's first film shot entirely using Digital camera equipment. It is an unforgiving satire on current social mores fuelled by greed and technological media advancement. It's also a continuation of themes in Banerjee's films that try to evaluate and present the dilemmas of the rising middle-class and the nouveau riche that have come into being with Indian's economic boom since the 1990s.
In 2012 Shanghai was released  and screened in Australia.  It was again critically acclaimed, and did reasonably at the box office. The film had two versions, an international and an Indian version and is set in a relatively remote area of inland India. It is based on the 1967 Greek novel Z written by Vassilis Vassilikos. An earlier film version of this novel was made by Costa-Gavras.

In between Shanghai and his new film he contributed to the portmanteau film Bombay Talkies along with directors Anurag Kashup and Karen Johar.

His new film is Detective Byomkesh Bakshy, a crime thriller,  co-produced by Aditya Chopra of Yash Raj films.  The film is based on the fictional detective Byomkesh Bakshi created by the Bengali writer Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay.  In a contemporary interpretation of war torn Calcutta during the 1940's, the film follows the first adventure of Byomkesh (Sushant Singh Rajput), fresh out of college, as he pits himself against an evil genius who is out to destroy the world. It's his wits against the most villainous arch criminal the world has seen, in a world of murder, international political intrigue and seduction.

Banerjee  has expressed his desire  to turn Byomkesh Bakshy into a franchise. providing the first film meets expectations. You can watch the trailer here.

Tuesday 17 March 2015

French Film Festival - Troisieme partie - St Laurent & The Blue Room - More from Film Alert Corrrespondents

Max Berghouse writes:
Saint Laurent (Bertrand Bonello, 2014, 150 minutes) is easily the worst film I have so far seen at the current French Film Festival. Within minutes of screen time it became evident that I could only use the suffering and boredom induced in me as some sort of Lenten sacrifice. In fact perhaps I ought not to write this review because by hopefully precise numeric calculation, I left 6 minutes prior to its ending. If the announced screen time included credits, then I missed very little. Pity.

Opulently photographed and set, it is a completely interior film: the several Atelier workshops of the "master" which seemed so small that staff working there must've been in virtual slave labour conditions, nightclubs with the protagonists draped rather than sitting over banquettes, drugged and drunk out of their brains and the opulent but tasteless apartments of Saint Laurent and his some time emotional "squeeze", Berge.

Grossly over long and dull as dishwater from beginning to end, it should surely prove that some subject matters can't be rendered into film. Making clothing is completely tedious in real life as it is on screen. Saint Laurent who I have now learned was the greatest couturier (I had better not be common sense and Anglo-Saxon by saying "dressmaker") of the 20th century seems to have been conveyed accurately from life to film: boring, self absorbed and drug addled most of his mature life.

I'm not sure if YSL were left-handed in real life, but Gaspar Ulliel does all the sketching of dresses with his left hand and towards the very end when the elderly YSL is played by Helmut Berger, to maintain the solution, Berger is shown in reverse, with his pocket handkerchief on his right breast rather than left. If one notices little faux pas like this, clearly one's mind is not occupied on the film as story.

My original choice of this film was based on the fact that it was nominated the 10 Cesar awards and not on subsequent film reviews which accorded it much the same quality as I have above. Must be a French thing!

Michael Campi writes:
Barrie's summary of the French FF doesn't mention Mathieu Amalric's THE BLUE ROOM (2014, 76 minutes). I believe Curious Films may release it later, perhaps, unlike the Madman titles for which the trailers announce that they are FFF exclusives.  At around eight/ten screenings to packed houses, anyone can do the math. Who needs separate paid campaigns?

Amalric's film is intense and exquisitely filmed and from a Simenon novel.  Wonderfully it's less than 80 minutes long.

Monday 16 March 2015

A friend writes about a crowd funding proposal to fund a new movie titled King of Peking

Some forty seven years ago I met Shelley Warner when she and I were members of a chaotic, fun-filled and rather extraordinary student tour of China that took us into the heartland of the nation and its then current Cultural Revolution. She recently wrote that she and her husband are helping their son, Sam Voutas and his partner, Melanie Ansley, "a pair of  creative, imaginative and hard working independent film makers", with a crowd funding campaign to help make their second China-based feature film: King of Peking. They aren't looking for investors (it isn't a big budget film), simply small scale supporters.

Shelley has written to say the young couple’s last China film, Red Light Revolution, which they made a couple of years ago, was set in Beijing, in Chinese, written and directed by Sam, produced by Melanie.”It is a light film, a little naughty but quite a lovely story.  It wasn't a big money-spinner, but did get some recognition, including a ranking last year by the British Film Institute as one of the ten best films about Beijing “ .

Now you can consider making a pledge to contribute (anything from US$2 up) to the making of their new movie, King of Peking. You can do it through this Crowd site:

Just as I received this I was sent a link to a webpage devoted to the new film and here's an extra bit of info about it: The story takes place during the introduction of video discs to the Chinese market in 1998, which fundamentally shifted the way people consumed movies. Suddenly the films one could watch in the Mainland weren't just limited to the handful released in cinemas. Movies from all over the world could be purchased "en masse" from street vendors hawking both new releases and classic films.

KING OF PEKING is the story of a struggling movie projectionist who, when faced with crippling alimony, uses brand new DVD technology to enter the pirating business. With the help of his young son he starts copying movies at home in order to keep custody. Think "Chef" meets "Cinema Paradiso" - but in Chinese.

 If you are now very curious and have some spare change have a look here for more information


The French Film Festival - Film Alert Correspondents Tell All..... or at least a little more

Following on from Barrie Pattison's exclusive report below three more correspondents have sent in their reactions.
Max Berghouse writes:
Far from Men (David Oelhofffen, 2015, 115 minutes) was beautifully shot in Morocco, standing in for Algeria and very well acted and to some extent compelling. Compared by some critics to 3: 10 to Yuma which is a fair comparison, it is very well performed but the central conceit of the protagonist, the schoolteacher, behaving as he does is unconvincing.

Diplomacy (Volker Schlondorff, 2014, 84 minutes) is sufficiently opened out to mostly seem like a film, rather than play being filmed, but is memorable only for the performances of its 2 leads. They are both excellent but I think real pleasure would be gained only by those people who had absolutely no knowledge of the true historical events.

Last Diamond (Eric Barbier, 2014, 108 minutes) is a predictable but rollickingly good fun caper movie and the fun generally pastes over the artificiality.

I found French Riviera (Andre Techine, 2014, 116 minutes) a failure but the director (whom I clearly respect) does not seem to me to have simply been negligent or made a mistake: his exegesis was deliberative from beginning to end but struck me as showing a back story for 90 odd minutes while the real interesting story was simply referred to.

The rest of our viewing will be bibs and bobs towards the end of the week.

I really am not sure whether this whole exercise was for me justifiable because traditionally the French film Festival is reduced to multiple DVDs which are purchasable some months after the festival itself. Maybe that practice has been continued.”
Travis Cragg writes:
I have been to 22 French films so far. As well as FAR FROM MEN, I would also highly recommend LES COMBATTANTS (Thomas Cailley, 2014, 98 minutes) (given the really horrible English title of LOVE AT FIRST FIGHT, presumably to draw more people in) and L'HOMME QU'ON AIMAIT TROP (given the bland English name of FRENCH RIVIERA). I would also recommend against seeing THE LAST DIAMOND - an uninspired script which wants to use every heist film cliche it can, and then throws in some nonsensical plot twists in the last third.

David Young writes:
I agree with Barry on his reports on Loin des hommes/Far from men and Diplomatie/Diplomacy; both superb films. 

Might I add that La chambre bleue/The blue room is also a nice little piece of work. Director Mathieu Amalric plays the slightly befuddled lover of Delphine (who, like Mandrake, has the power to cloud a man's mind) and is drawn into a situation which will end badly for him. like the best of the 1950s b-pictures, a lot happens in the (surprisingly short by today's standards) 76 minutes the film runs for.

And speaking of Catherine Deneuve, she completed a hat trick of duds as far as iIwas concerned with Dans la cour/In the courtyard (Pierre Salvadori, 2014, 97 minutes). Salvadori couldn't decide whether to make a comedy or a tragedy so he threw in a lot of each. the catalogue described it as "charmingly poignant" but to me it was depressing, both in subject matter and the fact that the great Deneuve could be associated with such material.

the retrospective, such as it was, was also a highlight of the festival. Bertrand Tavernier's Capitaine Conan is probably unique in locating his world war one story in the Balkans, and is probably also unique for being that rare beast - a cerebral action movie.

And for me, the festival ended on the sublime note of a screening of Jean Renoir's La grande illusion. it was a restored print (no doubt 'digitally presented') which looked fantastic on the big screen (in the correct format, too). What else can one say about perfection?
 Now you know!



Sunday 15 March 2015

Film Alert 2014 Number 4 - (Edited Highlights), Barrie Pattison on the French Film Festival, Forthcoming Sydney Screenings

Supercinephile Barrie Pattison writes on the 2015 French Film Festival currently racking up big audiences and massive box office all round the country.
As always I’ll never really know about this lot. Fifty titles at those prices makes an impossible target. There are times when you wonder are these really the pick of the year’s offering? I was well on the way to regarding the event as a way to throw fifteen dollars a movie into the void. Then it came good. I got two exceptional films in the same day.

Loin des hommes/ Far from Men starts off predictably with Vigo Mortensen as the Post WW2 Algerian school teacher saddled with the job of taking local murderer Reda Kateb (Zero Dark Thirty) to the gendarmerie, a day’s march down the desert road. Oh no – more growing mutual respect! Well they do go that way but, as they fill in the two central characters and the pair get involved with local militias and the French army, it becomes clear that this is something more thoughtful and impressive than we are used to. Great ‘Scope images. Angela Molina doing a walk-on.

Then they slapped on Diplomatie/ Diplomacy, the enduring Volker Schlondorf’s film of the hit play about the Swedish Consul Nordling talking General Dietrich von Choltitz, German occupation commander, out of leveling Paris, as the Krauts lose WW2. This delivers two great parts to André Dussolier and Niels Arestrup, who come through brilliantly. Factually suspect but dramatically superior, introducing elements like the story of Abraham and Dussolier’s rousing hypothetical. All the reviewers seem to have forgotten René Clement’s 1966 version Is Paris Burning? The actual “Paris brûle-t-il?” ‘phone call doesn’t even figure here.

Benoit Jacquot’s 3 Coeurs/ Three Hearts looked like a safe bet with Benoît Poelevoorde, Charlotte Gainsbourg , Chiara Mastroianni and Catherine Deneuve, but it’s a mis-judged and uninvolving account of frustrated passion. Mlle Deneuve struck out again in the once great André Techiné’s equally ambitious L’Homme qu’on aimait trop/ French Riviera treating a celebrated, inconclusive murder trial. Guillaume Cantet and Adele Haenel get involved in Casino politics at ponderous length.

Melanie Laurent is staking out relationship cinema with her second feature as director Respire/Breathe covering a teenage school girl friendship that goes South in soft ‘scope close-ups. David Bailey, Amitiés particuliaires and the current stressed family cycle swirl around. It takes a while for any narrative to form and the ending is a lurch into melo but Laurent is feeling her way towards something substantial.

Someone must have thought that if people were prepared to watch decadence for 142 min. in La grande bellezza, they could take a hundred and fifty of Bertrand Bonello’s Saint Laurent, glamour with a sprinkling of nudity, luxury historical reconstruction - with actuality and fashion in a split screen.  You’ve got to wonder about a film where the clothes are the best element. Gaspard Ulliel and Jeremy Renier deserve better.

Lisa Azuelos’ polished Une rencontre/ Quantum Love /Chance Meeting is determinedly female and determinedly escapist. Mature author Sophie Marceau and lawyer Francois Cluzet get along a treat, leading to a variety of fantasies of which the most striking has them naked together in the bed he is sharing with Azuelos, doing double duty playing his wife. Beautiful people, beautiful homes and locations - the Paris bridge with the lovelocks, London red buses. After you realize it’s all froth, attention wanders.

In Tu Veux out tu veux pas/ Sex Love & Therapy relations councilor Patrick Bruel hires Sophie again, to sit in on his sessions and we get a lot of will they or won’t they. I was thinking of setting up cloud funding to buy her new underwear after she turned up a second time in those same black scanties.

Welcome relief came with a germphobic (think Danny Kaye in Up in Arms) Danny Boon in his own Superchondriac, a very funny farcical piece placing him again opposite Kad Merad and our first glance of the winning Alice Pol. Think The Interview without the edge but funnier gags.

Also a word of praise for that nice film maker interview promo trailer. ......For more of Barrie’s writing go to Sprocketed Sources
Screenings around Sydney                                                            
The Art Gallery of NSW has put together one of its more interesting selections to accompany its major new exhibition showcasing Australian photography. Titled Brought to light: Troublemakers, boat-rockers, trailblazers and whistleblowers,  it features a selection heavily weighted towards local shorts and documentaries with a selection of classic features topping up the season. It starts on Sunday March 29 and runs through each week until early June. Free admission. Full details  are here.

The second of a series of six FREE screenings taking place at AFTRS commencing at 6.00 pm on Wednesday evenings will be Abbas Kiarostami’s Close Up (1990). For some good background you can go to a piece by Godfrey Cheshire in the online Slant Magazine. Cheshire also did the liner booklet that accompanies the Criterion DVD of the film. This is a rare, for Sydney anyway, public screening of not just this film but any film by Kiarostami. A quick check of the Sydney Film Festival website draws a blank from the search engine which suggests, to the naked eye at least, that the SFF has never shown a single title by this most revered figure. I had a feeling the SFF screened the recent Shirin but nothing came up. MIFF has not only screened his films but had the great man as a guest a few years ago now. So be grateful.  Close Up (Abbas Kiarostami, Iran, 1990, 98 minutes), AFTRS Theatrette, EQ, Moore Park, at 6.00 pm on Wednesday March 25 introduced by Bridget Ikin.

Saturday 14 March 2015

Catching Up (4) - The Woman in Question (Anthony Asquith, UK, 1950)

All those Rank films have lain round after being recorded off late night transmissions on the ABC over the last twenty five years. It's probably criminal neglect that there are more than a few still unseen. A name as prestigious as Asquith's though is something else. Quite shameful but there you are. His was a name that denominated prestige and quality right from the moment when he started. We've been reminded of this recently with the release by the BFI on one of its Blu-ray/DVD packages of the director's first solo film, the 1927 Underground.

In the short entry on Asquith in Richard Roud's Cinema: A Critical Dictionary, published way, way back in 1980 when film publications were rarities, John Russell Taylor knew nothing of Underground. His take was that "most of (Asquith's) best films were in fact based quite clearly on plays." He mentioned the Shaw adaptations Pygmalion (1938) and The Doctor's Dilemma (1958) and the eight collaborations with Terence Rattigan which began way back in 1939 with French Without Tears. David Thomson endorses this view in his Biographical Dictionary in 2002: "...he had a high and quite unmerited reputation. In fact he was a dull journeyman supervisor of the transfer to the screen of proven theatrical properties." He proceeds to express some admiration for Dance Pretty Lady (1932), The Importance of Being Earnest (1952) and Pygmalion.

John Russell Taylor makes no mention of The Woman in Question (1950) nor does Thomson so I'm assuming that neither had seen it when they made their judgement. I don't imagine that a viewing of it would do much to change their minds beyond perhaps acknowledging that this was a movie that was somewhat out of Asquith's comfort zone of beautifully spoken dialogue and refined dramatic moments among the middle and upper classes. What might be focussed upon in any assessment would be the near caricatures of the criminal class represented by Dirk Bogarde, playing a sort of Graham Greene spiv with an American accent (which he later admits is put on and that he's never been further west than Liverpool) and John McCallum as an Irish boyo.

Both Dirk and John initially fall for the charms of widowed fortune teller Astra (Jean Kent). She works on the Brighton pier and has an eye for the guys. At the start of the movie her dead body is discovered by the local paper boy and what we then get is a series, almost Rashomon-like, of vignettes designed to show the sort of woman Astra is and how she's seen by the neighbourhood. As I said its a sort of sub-Brighton Rock. The details are quite good, most especially the somewhat drab, indeed seedy house, that  Astra in habits and wherein most of the film takes place. A lot of care went into that bit of art design and it foretells the British kitchen sink dramas that were to come a half decade later. But the clunky plot and the acting/characterization of the three main players who swirl around Jean Kent leaves a little to be desired when some authenticity is called for.

Still, Asquith was trying something out of his comfort zone and that's to be commended. It seems likely however, that he didn't know much about the characters and thus was little help to his actors. He quickly retreated to what he knew best. Adaptations of Rattigan (The Browning Version 1951)  and Wilde followed .

Wednesday 11 March 2015

Measuring the success of Australian Films - The Film Impact Rating

The Story so far.....

Way back in January three Melbourne academics Deb Verhoeven, Alwyn Davidson and Bronwyn Coate published an academic research paper devoted to considering ways of measuring the success or otherwise of Australia’s film production.

The introduction to their paper stated.
International markets have in recent years become a critical component of the
business model for Hollywood cinema, opening up a renewed interest in the
global dimensions of film diffusion. Smaller film-producing nations such as
Denmark have similarly emphasised global distribution as a key component of
the industry’s success. Typically, however, claims for Australian film industry
success rely almost exclusively on a film’s domestic box office performance. This
paper considers the possibilities for an expanded approach to measuring success
and failure in the Australian film industry. Adopting analytic methods from
cinema studies, cultural economics and geo-spatial sciences, this paper will
examine the international theatrical circulation of Australian films using a unique
global database of cinema showtimes. This data set captures all formal film
screenings in 47 countries over an 18-month period ending 1 June 2014 and
enables detailed empirical study of the locations visited by Australian-produced
films. In conjunction with relevant box office data and contextual critical
commentary, we propose a revised and expanded ‘film impact rating’ for
assessing the reported performance of Australian films.
The full paper is behind a rather expensive paywall and I don’t know if any special circumstances apply to having a peek at less than the full tariff. Notwithstanding that, my friend Bruce Hodsdon, a long time cinephile whose initial training as an economist had caused him to ponder the question of measuring success on previous occasions, most notably in an article published in Metro magazine, a copy of which I posted here at Hodsdon article, gave some serious consideration to the research paper and I published a response to it which considered the FIR in some detail.

Things have kept moving and Deb, Alwyn and Bronwyn have responded in detail to Bruce’s comments. Their response is also posted here .
The authors have also taken a most interesting further step by setting up a website, the snappily titled Reel Measures, which explains what they are trying to do allows anyone who has the data relating to a particular film to enter it and generate their own Film Impact Rating. Apparently a number of producers have already had a crack.

Bruce is currently having a think about the most recent response to his thoughts and promises a further iteration. So...a little more to come...

Tuesday 10 March 2015

The Film Critics' Circle Awards for 2014 - A quick snapshot of last night's events

Rolf De Heer came up on stage to collect his Best Director’s Award for Charlie’s Country, a masterpiece and perhaps his best ever film, barely able to contain his rage. He was accepting the Award on the day that the Prime Minister had announced, somewhere in Western Australia, that Aboriginals living in remote outback communities do so as a lifestyle choice and should not expect funds from the taxpayer to support them. Rolf’s gentle rage, internalised until then but now expressed with grace, contrasted with yet another bovver boy statement from a Prime Minister displaying more and more signs of suffering the delayed effects of a youthful over-exuberant boxing career. Like punch drunk fighters who want to get up and keep wading into their opponents, the Prime Minister cant stop himself and cant stop embarrassing the nation.  (Then again when you think about it, moving the Aboriginal nations on has been pretty much the sole policy pursued with any vigour for the last 240 years and for some it must be hard to give up the old way of doing things.)
It was quite an electric moment and the crowd, perhaps the biggest ever to attend a Film Critics Circle of Australia Awards night, stood and clapped and cheered. Rolf came back a short while later to accept the Award for Best Picture as well. He beat perhaps the strongest field in years, the other nominees being The Water Diviner, The Babadook, Tracks and  Predestination.

Otherwise the evening belonged to Russell Crowe, wearing trade mark casuals and a hoodie, who got the gong for Best Actor for his work on his own film The Water Diviner and saw two of his other charges, Jacqueline McKenzie and  Yilmaz Erdogan, take away both of the Best Supporting Actor gongs. All gave gracious speeches but the crowd will remember Yilmaz forever for his deft interweaving of Turkish bread, Turkish Delight and making an Australian movie.

Elsewhere, a remarkable doco, made over the course of a decade by Nick Torrens, China’s 3 Dreams won its category. Once again, as with almost all those attending, Nick gave a wonderful acceptance speech and reminded everybody that if you let people talk, rather than try and stop them with time limits you get to hear some fine sentiments expressed.
An evening put together with a lot of love but one which produced a sombre moment amidst all the joy. Cinephilia got a good look in as well.

For a more extensive report and a full list of the prize-winners go to Russell Edwards article at

Saturday 7 March 2015

Catching Up (3) - High Tide at Noon (Philip Leacock, UK,1956)

High Tide at Noon (Philip Leacock, UK, 1956, A Julian Wintle Production, 100 minutes)
So what does the title mean? There is nothing here at all about tides or any importance of noon throughout the narrative. Perhaps there was some plot device that made sense of the title in the original novel from which the film is adapted but I don't think I'll ever check that out. High Tide at Noon is, after The Kidnappers, the second Philip Leacock movie set in Nova Scotia. Exteriors were filmed there but most of it was shot on the Pinewood backlot with a lot of back projection. The first title that comes up, a little Rank trope of the time, is "A British Film".

The two leads are played by little known Americans Betta St John (Joanna) and William Sylvester (Alec) and all the others are Brits. They all try and talk in what passes for mid-Atlantic accents though no one as far as I could decipher pronounced the word "out" as "oat", the simplest linguistic characteristic that gives a Canadian touch. Betta plays Joanna and she returns to a deserted and decrepit island, clearly an abandoned fishing community. She begins an explore and, cued by some music on the soundtrack, goes into a long flashback.

So, its five years ago and fresh-f-aced and beaming Joanna comes home from school and vows never to leave the island. Her father, a dour Alexander Knox is the unofficial head of the island but like most has fallen on hard times. The lobster catch is diminishing and the young are leaving. Joe is immediately importuned by family nemesis Simon, a brooding Patrick McGoohan but she fights him off. Its not to be the end of things. Episodes follow - a brother gets his girl friend pregnant, Alec arrives and sweeps Jo off her feet but the marriage sours as he gambles away their savings to Simon. Fortunately the bad marriage ends quickly when Alec drowns. The community abandons the place and it falls into disrepair until Jo returns and is reunited with the one man who always wanted her and waited, Nils (Michael Craig), another lobster fisherman who is last man standing and announces "The lobsters are back!" as they sweep into each other's arms. Hmmmm.

A check on Leacocok's filmography is interesting. His last feature was Adam's Woman (1970). It was made in Australia. After that he picked up his life in the US and had a comfortable life directing episodes of many of the successful network TV series, dozens of them.

(Long, long ago I set out to write a short note on all of the J Arthur Rank films screened late night on the ABC for several decades. Progress has been slow but work has resumed. The earlier ones are here

Friday 6 March 2015

The Current Cinema - A Most Violent Year - JC Chandor channels George V Higgins

We've seen these settings before. This is the underbelly of industrial New York or maybe New Jersey. Which is where we saw them for the eight years or so of The Sopranos. Then men get out of cars and go inside a run down building. A transaction takes place. We instantly know that the terms of it are going to be trouble for one of the signatories to the deal. One side of that deal is a small group of Hasidic(?) Jews who have a property to sell. The other is a handsome, elegantly dressed, impeccably coiffed young man Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) and he's accompanied by his lawyer, an older man, (I didn't recognise Albert Brooks but there you are).

This will be Abel's story as he picks his way through a minefield of plot and complication. He lives in a world of market rigging. His ambitions are such that wants to run a respectable business and take market share off his opposition. That opposition run a small local cartel and most don't appreciate Abel's business expansion plans. One among them however actively encourages spivs and thugs to bust up Abel's business and steal his product. Abel (spoiler alert from here) traps him and gets his money back. Abel's threat is to go to the cops, the same cops who are trying to bust up the small-time cartel activities.

This is intricate stuff and, given that JC Chandor made the similarly complex Margin Call in 2011 you wonder whether he has a degree in economics as well as whatever qualifications he's acquired to make very good movies.

I'm hazarding a guess now but I have to wonder whether Chandor hasn't read the Boston-based fiction of George V Higgins. Higgins first book The Friends of Eddie Coyle  was made into a fine movie by the English import Peter Yates in 1973 though its initial reception was apparently modest. There were no more movies made from Higgins' books until Andrew Dominik got to make Killing Them Softly in 2011, based on the author's third book "Cogan's Trade". That was coarse and vulgar version of Higgins work, full of flashy characters completely at odds with the types that Higgins describes.  But at this pace it will take another 1,200 years to run through George V's oeuvre.

Chandor has  made it easy by writing the thing himself and no doubt the criminal milieu he depicts is drawn from many sources, including the aforementioned Sopranos. But it departs in significant ways and those ways correspond to the way Higgins told his stories. First there is the simple fact that the film's story is carried forward by a series of short and occasionally long conversations. Notwithstanding the title, the film is not one which relishes violence and again that's notwithstanding the ending which has the same sort of out of left field moment that Higgins liked.

Most important though  is the construction of Abel's character and the way he deals with crises. We first see him jogging not long before his fateful meeting with the Jewish property vendors. His voice is rarely raised. The only loud argument he has is with his wife when he discovers (another spoiler alert) she has been cooking his company books and has skimmed off a lot of money, putting it away for the inevitable rainy day. The next morning Abel simply concedes that notwithstanding that she stole the money from him, her proposed course of action to use it is the right one. He can thus also avoid going into debt to one of his business rivals.

A Most Violent Year is a fine concoction. It plays against all the gangster type, most notably where whacks and hits are the way of dealing with problems. Abel's resourceful  mind looks for peaceful solutions. That's quite a variation on the common theme and I think it can be traced all the way back to the way George V Higgins told his stories and settled into a niche that chronicled Boston Business, crime and politics for thirty years or so. Maybe Chandor too, taking into account what he achieved with Margin Call, has this Balzacian desire to chronicle the big and small of the way business works in the world's biggest economy. A few more films exploring the themes and characters wont go astray.

Wednesday 4 March 2015

Bruce Hodsdon's Best Ever Australian Films

Bruce Hodsdon is  a
Cinephile and retired film library curator.  He trained as an economist and some of his work analysing the box office for Australian films can be found at He has contributed to the online journal Senses of Cinema, most recently to the "John Flaus Dossier" .
I ask myself what am I doing when I nominate ten or twenty feature films as 'the best'. Is it just a case of “you show me yours and I'll show you mine”. Or is it more? I think it can be a personally arbitrated historical road map of the cinema or, as in this case, a national cinema which, if confined to a particular era, at least implicit might be something of a framework for an emerging  national cinema. In edging towards this, it may be consciously, or more or less unconsciously, provocative. Or it may be more a measure of the culture by taking into account commercial as well as artistic merit, acknowledging, for the feature film, the importance of 'bums on seats'. Do we apply our own Harry Cohn test (the notorious Columbia studio boss's trust in the sensitivity of his own backside as the ultimate measure of a film's merit)? If we do, we are unlikely to admit it, but are more likely to invoke the pleasure principle within at least a modicum of artistic and cultural merit.

In selecting my canon of Oz films I have not gone back beyond 1970, the seminal year separating  the film revival from the commercial imperatives of the first seventy five years and have allowed a director only one film each in the list. Initially, following the piecemeal film by film approach, I found that when I had reached close to twenty features, most of the films were on the dark side, the blackest being the extraordinary and strangely prescient Snowtown which, on re-viewing, brought to mind Peter Tammer's equally extraordinary Journey to the End of Night (see below) and its companion, the all but unseen Fear of the Dark. What I'm referring to here are roles being played out in these three films that go beyond any conventional notions of performance, both disturbing and, for me, even curiously liberating. The two comedies in the list conformed to the apparent default setting : the black comedy, Death in Brunswick, and the in turn comic, sad and ultimately mordant romcom, Love Serenade. Pure Shit, set in the Melbourne drug scene, has the pacing and some of the ambience of a screwball comedy that ends badly, which notably resulted in a Melbourne critic condemning it as 'evil'. And there is the droll portrait, by Robert McDarra in 27A, of an alcoholic in detention. Sweetie is an unclassifiable blend of engaging wit, disconcerting deployment of on-screen space, stylised performance and a choral music score, drawing us into a disturbing mix of emotions.

The earliest film on my list, Wake in Fright (1970), seems an appropriate genesis. Excepting  Newsfront and Return Home, the 17 feature films listed above reach into the darker recesses of experience from inner city drug culture (2) to various forms of alienation in suburbia (10) and small outback towns (5).

 Does that say more about my slightly perverse application of the pleasure principle than it provides a snapshot of rewards, regardless of commercial success or critical consensus, to be found in more than four decades of Oz cinema ? Significantly Newsfront is the only film on my list that notably succeeded  at the box office.

  Feature films in chronological order:

 Wake in Fright (Ted Kotcheff) 1970

27A (Esben Storm & Haydn Keenan) 1973

Pure Shit (Bert Deling) 1976

Newsfront ( Phillip Noyce) 1978

My First Wife (Paul Cox) 1981

Dogs in Space (Richard Lowenstein) 1986

Celia (Ann Turner) 1987

Shame ( Steve Jodrell) 1987

Sweetie (Jane Campion) 1989

Return Home (Ray Argall) 1990

Death in Brunswick (John Ruane) 1991

Last Days of Chez Nous (Gillian Armstrong) 1993

Love Serenade (Shirley Barrett) 1996

Noise (Matthew Saville) 2007

Blessed (Ana Kokkinos) 2009

Snowtown (Justin Kurzel) 2011

Mystery Road (Ivan Sen) 2013

The Babadook (Jennifer Kent) 2014

Charlie's Country (Rolf de Heer) 2014

Three unique films: Sunshine City (1973, Albie Thoms, 118 mins), Journey to the End of Night (1982, Peter Tammer, 80 mins) and In This Life's Body (1984, Corinne Cantrill, 147 mins). All three films are available for loan on 16mm from the NFSA's Film Lending Collection; only Journey to the End of Night is also available on dvd. For my description of these films (including the companion of  Journey, Fear of the Dark), which can all be characterised as 'non-fiction' but not as 'documentary' or 'fiction', see the brief online entries in the NFLC catalogue on the NFSA's website (search collections>lending collection>submit).

The selections below are based on my fading memory of these films in the National Lending Collection of the NFSA, during my time (1981-96) with the Collection when it was located in the the National Library. With two exceptions they were all shot on 16mm film. Almost all are still  available for loan, but with the exception of Bonjour Balwyn, Mallacoota Stampede, Feeling Sexy,

Come Out Fighting and Passionless Moments which are available on dvd, are only on 16mm and/or vhs. They represent some high points in low budget fictional filmmaking of the pre-digital era.

 Short features ( in no particular order):  The Love Letters from Teralba Road (1977, Stephen Wallace, 50 mins), Temperament Unsuited (1978, Ken Cameron, 56 mins), Bonjour Balwyn (1972 Nigel Buesst, 60 mins),  Greetings from Wollongong ( 1982, Mary Callaghan, 45 mins), Feathers (1987, John Ruane, 49 mins), Mallacoota Stampede ( 1980, Peter Tammer, 63 mins),
My Life Without Steve (1986, Gillian Leahy, 52 mins), Feeling Sexy (1999, Davida Allen, 50 mins), Brake Fluid ( (1970, Brian Davies, 51 mins), Come Out Fighting (1973, Nigel Buesst, 50 mins), A Handful of Dust (1974, Aylen Kuyululu, 42 mins).

Telemovies: The Plumber (1979, Peter Weir), Mail-Order Bride (1984, Stephen Wallace), 2 Friends (1986, Jane Campion). All three are on 16mm but only The Plumber is also available in the Lending Collection on dvd.

Short films: Between Us (1990, Bill Masoulis, 36 mins), Bonza (1988 David Swann, 30 mins), The Girl Who Met Simone De Beauvoir in Paris (1980, Richard Wherrett, 24 mins), Cherith (1987, Shirley Barrett, 19 mins), Plead Guilty, Get a Bond (1990, Peter Maguire, 31 mins), Passionless Moments (1984, Jane Campion & Gerard Lee, 13 mins), Letters from Poland (1978, Sophia Turkiewicz, 37 mins), Just Me and My Little Girlie (1976, Linda Blagg, 12 mins)

Monday 2 March 2015

A Cinematheque by any other name - Film School Confidential - Free Screenings at AFTRS

AFTRS in Sydney is taking a leap into public engagement, inviting its students and cinephiles in general to a series of FREE fortnightly screenings on its premises in the EQ at Moore Park. Le Quattro Volte, A Time for Drunken Horses, Close-up, Seconds, Au Hasard Balthazar, Hani -bi, The Battle of Algiers  and Sherman's March  are the first selection. Starts March 11 at 6.00 pm. Each film introduced by someone who should know what they are talking about! Details here

On DVD (2) - Plein Soleil - Highsmith, Delon, Clement and the quintessential Tom Ripley

For a brief moment the film earned Clement the reputation of a French Hitchcock, a path he pursued with diminishing success thereafter. What he was not able to find again was Plein Soleil's singular grace, a lightness of touch, a nearly comic elation operating in odd but harmonious counterpoint to its motifs of cruelty, envy, unappeasable longing and mad calculation. Small wonder that the alchemy by which such unlike elements are fused here proved impossible to recapture. If Plein Soleil lends itself to repeated viewings, its because we cant find its particular insidious shade of pleasure anywhere else.

The paragraph, the last of a couple of thousand word essay, is so good there is no point in trying to find other words to sum up the pleasure it invokes. It was written by Geoffrey O'Brien, an irregular film and other critic in the pages of the New York Review and elsewhere. The essay is part of the booklet issued with the Criterion Blu-ray edition of Rene Clement's Plein Soleil/Purple Noon/Full Sun (France/Italy, 1960). The booklet also includes a translated interview with Clement taken from a 1981 issue of "L'Avant-scene du cinema", a French monthly devoted to the publication of film scripts and associated material.

Clement wanted Delon for the Ripley role, he says in 1981, notwithstanding that the actor was little known and the few films he had made were undistinguished. Once the public had a chance to assess Plein Soleil, Delon was a star. One of the extras on the disc is an interview with a chronicler of Clement's career, a fast, indeed metronomic, talker named Denitza Bantcheva. Among the multitudes of info offered, she puts the moment when Delon transformed from pretty boy leading man into a handsome star at precisely the point in the film when he is ordered out of the ship's cabin and, in a rage, strips off his shirt and sullenly sets himself down and takes the wheel of the boat. Such impossible tanned beauty accompanies a glare with the camera at a low angle to show the figure against, mostly anyway, a a clear blue sky. Electric.

There are two other extras on the disc, a short interview with Delon in which he expresses a preference to choose directors rather than scripts or projects. By this time Delon was a star  and among those directors he didn't choose to work with was every major name of the French New Wave. In the early 60s, however he had chosen Antonioni and Visconti and he returned to Clement on four other occasions. In 1967 that he went to work for Jean-Pierre Melville, for whom he made three of his most highly regarded movies. In 1990, he was in Godard's Nouvelle Vague, the first time he worked with one of the major figures who emerged at the same time as Delon, way back in the late 50s and early 60s.

The final extra on the disc is a 1971 interview with Patricia Highsmith, by then a resident of France and reasonably relaxed speaking French throughout. It's an item from a French TV program, shot in  in and around Highsmith's home at the time, a modest house backing onto a canal where working barges chug past, somewhere in the backblocks. It was not luxury living for a writer who at that time was fifty years old and had published 14 novels and a single collection of short stories. Three of those novels had been turned into movies and the rights had been sold to two others which were in turnaround. Highsmith explains all this in some detail and lets us know that she thinks Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train  was the best of them, notwithstanding the major liberties Hitchcock and his scriptwriter Raymond Chandler took with the story. Clement too fiddled with his adaptation of The Talented Mr Ripley. The only other film adaptation was Claude Autant-Lara's film of The Blunderer, a German-French co-production, (Der Morder/Le Meurtrier) made in 1962. Highsmith's dismissal of the film as one which showed no imagination in sticking to the book is interesting. This film seemed to have almost completely disappeared but about a year ago someone uploaded a German language copy, unfortunately without any subtitles on Youtube which you can find here Maurice Ronet, who plays the unfortunate Philippe Greenleaf in Plein Soleil  has a role in Le Meutrier as well.

The black and white film is a brief portrait of the artist well and truly into middle-age. Her looks have coarsened from the glamour she displayed as a young woman when she wrote those first novels (including the pseudonymous The Price of Salt). She was a heavy smoker and drinker for much of her life and it was showing. But in her work she maintained what she had early settled into, a style of flat prose, rarely using adjectives, that analysed 'the effect of guilt on her characters'. The portrait of Highsmith, defensive and severe, nervous at times is a terrific addition to the coloured brilliance of Henri Decae's colour photography of a glorious Italian summer, restored here in all its glory.