Tuesday 19 July 2016

A Young Cinephile's Diary - Shaun Heenan discovers Rene Clair's LE MILLION and Kurosawa's ONE WONDERFUL SUNDAY

This week’s Criterion streams on Fandor were less thematically related than usual, as they showcased a collection of films which simply included numbers in the title. Those present included good films I’d already seen, most notably Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) and Jean-Luc Godard’s 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967). My weekly viewing from this selection included a pair of impressive films, both new to me, featuring both the largest and the smallest numbers on the list.

Le Million (René Clair, France, 1931) is an early-sound musical comedy about a struggling, debt-ridden artist whose life seems ready to turn around once he wins the lottery. Of course the ticket is in his jacket pocket, and the jacket was with his fiancée, and she gave it to a criminal on the run as a disguise… and so on and so on. As the day moves from disaster to disaster, the film remains fresh and amusing, and the plot holds up its end of the bargain to a surprising degree.

The obvious highlight comes late in the film, as our hero and his fiancée find themselves hiding on stage behind a prop during a live operatic performance, for reasons complicated though coherent. The scene the crowd sees is a song between two lovers who have been quarreling, but realise they can’t bear to be apart, and we watch the hidden couple as they realise wordlessly that the song is saying everything they’d like to. It’s a rare quiet moment in an otherwise frantic film, and it helps to ground everything that happens around it. Apart from this scene, none of the songs are especially memorable, but they mostly stay out of the way.

The week’s other quality film was One Wonderful Sunday (Akira Kurosawa, Japan, 1947), my ninth Kurosawa film, and my fourth this year. I’d never heard of this one, but Kurosawa’s name drew me to it. I’m starting to get the feeling he didn’t make many bad films. The story takes place in post-war Tokyo, where returned soldier Yuzo and his fiancée Masako are trying to make the best of their weekly date, despite being unable to afford the things they’d like to enjoy together. The film’s title starts to seem like a cruel joke as the day’s disappointments slowly wear the lovers down.

Kurosawa focused more than once on the malaise of returning soldiers. A few weeks ago I wrote about his film Stray Dog (1949), where an ex-soldier turned to a life of crime. In this slightly earlier case, Yuzo is shown to have fallen into depression. He distrusts the world he’s come home to, and sees himself being left behind as it moves on around him. In a genuinely surprising move (be aware that I am about to describe the final moments of this film) Masako turns to the camera and address the audience directly. She pleads for the public to understand the difficulties faced by her generation, left disenfranchised by the war, and even asks the audience to participate, clapping in encouragement to show support for Yuzo. The director’s message: that this generation would eventually return to full function, but they would need time, and they would need help.

This structure-defying directness is so far removed from anything else I’d seen from Kurosawa that it came as a real shock. It’s a powerful conclusion to a very good film.

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