Sunday 30 May 2021

The Current Cinema - Barrie Pattison draws attention to a rare theatrical screening of a new film by Miike Takashi - FIRST LOVE/HATSUKOI (Japan, 2019)

Takashi Miike’s  Hatsukoi /First Love  has landed in a few circuit theatres, which is worth a comment in itself. We usually have to rely on trash movie events and physical media to keep up with its director’s efforts. I saw it a couple of years back at the Paris Étrange Film Festival.

The film shows Miike in top form - pity someone didn’t say when. We start as we mean to go with boxer Masataka Kubota working out with ear ‘phones & in the ring putting the lights out for his opponent - cut to the severed head of a Filippino gangster hurled into the street still grinning. 


A deluge of sub-plots follows - girl junkie Sakurako Konishi isn’t cutting it as a whore paying off her dad’s debts. The specter of her old boyfriend wearing glasses under a bed sheet haunts her. The Yakuza boss comes out of jail and one of his soldiers plots knocking off a drug haul in association with a crooked cop, taking the girl along (don’t ask).


The boxer collapses in the ring when he has the match sewn up, to his manager’s exasperation, and he’s told he has a fatal tumor. This makes him indifferent to death, and has him downing the girl’s menacing pursuer. In the street, taking out the courier sets off the gun in his pocket injuring his attacker. 


The madam, who packed the girl off and was into kicking her around, becomes distraught at her fate, bursting into the gang boss’ dignified meeting and the lead couple is located by the Satnav ‘phone she was given by her operators, while the Chinese opposite number becomes involved along with a one armed swordsman whose provenance escapes me.


The boxer is let off, as a matter of respect, because he’s not in the Yakuza, and the film loses impetus as his fate becomes less dire. We’ve still got a jump over the massed cop cars and taking the girl to shower at a pool with them sopping wet when they meet the rival boss with his pregnant girlfriend at a rail crossing. The pair are solicitous and take them home to dry out.


After all this frantic activity the finale’s routine domesticity is unexpected.


First Love has striking concepts, even if it can’t keep up the pace - sheet man, that only the girl can see, dancing to the head phone music in the subway train, the sword waving Madam and even giving the gangster driver a blow job while he’s at the wheel recalling Ringo Lam’s splendidly ferocious 1993  Xia dao Gao Fei/Full Contact.


Seeing this is one of the better consequences of the lock down era product shortages, a rare big screen glimpse of the prolific and outrageous Miike in full flight.

First Love  is screening in three cinemas in Sydney at least for the rest of this week, i.e. till Wednesday. Check session and location details if you click here first love movie

Watch the trailer  IF YOU CLICK HERE

Miike Takashi at Cannes

Saturday 29 May 2021

On Blu-ray - A FILM AHEAD OF ITS TIME REVISITED - Rod Bishop takes a new look at PUNISHMENT PARK (Peter Watkins, USA, 1971)


This year marks the 50th Anniversary of Punishment Park. Time to see how it holds up.

Produced for $95,000 on 16mm during a two-and-a-half-week shoot, it lasted just four days in a single cinema when released in New York City. Detractors labelled it ‘paranoid’, ‘futuristic nonsense’and ‘hysterical exploitation’.

For decades, the only way Americans could see the film was access to rare 16mm prints. 

Peter Watkins, of course, was no stranger to this sort of resistance – The War Game(1965) graphically depicted a nuclear attack on Kent and was banned in the UK for 20 years.

Along with Culloden(1964), the British director had developed a remarkable style, sometimes referred to as ‘docu-drama’, sometimes as ‘pseudo-documentary’ and sometimes as‘staged documentary’

Borrowing techniques from television news crews, Watkins created an impactful but artificial cinema verité, often with non-professional actors. He directed a number of films using this technique including the 1746 destruction of the Jacobite Uprising in Scotland by the British Army (Culloden); a nuclear attack on Britain (The War Game); and Punishment Park, a planned persecution of early 1970s political dissidents, hunted down in a Californian desert by armed and murderous National Guards and police.

But documentaries – pseudo or hybrid – they are not. They are fiction films made with simulated documentary techniques. This didn’t stop the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarding The War Game the Oscar for Best Documentary in 1966 – itself an indicator of the power of Watkins’ films to destabilize viewer judgement.

Punishment Park is set in a parallel universe. The Vietnam War has worsened and the 1950 McCarran Internal Security Act is triggered, giving President Nixon, without authorization from Congress, the power to detain any citizen deemed a threat to national security.

One group of dissidents, clearly modelled on The Chicago Eight, are bused into the desert and put on trial for their opposition to the Vietnam War by a panel of over-ripe political reactionaries, including a prosecutor behaving like Judge Hoffman, a housewife, a dentist, a trade union official and a Professor of Sociology.

The dissidents include a pacifist, a socially-conscious female singer-songwriter, a yippie, some communists, draft-dodgers, some counter-culture ‘figures’, feminists, anti-Vietnam War protesters and some black intellectuals, one of whom is gagged and tied to a chair (like Bobby Seale).

All are presumed guilty before trial and all receive sentences from 10 to 20 years in jail. Or they can submit to three days of torture in the desert.

Another group who has chosen the desert torture option over incarceration are forced to walk 53 miles through temperatures as high as 44 degrees Celsius to reach an American flag. They are given two hours head start before being chased down by armed police and the National Guard. If they fail, they must serve their jail sentences.

Half a century on, the ferocious Punishment Park feels anything but dated. Watkins’ mise-en-scène is as effective as any film made today and viewers in 2021 cannot escape thinking of events since the film was made - Guantánamo Bay, Abu Graib, Afghanistan, Chile, Iraq, Rodney King, the US Patriot Act, QAnon, Black Lives Matter and George Floyd to name a few. 

In 1971, Watkins’ clear inspiration came from the Vietnam War era bashing of protestors at the 1968 Chicago Convention, the murders of Black Panther leaders, the murders of students by the National Guard at Kent State University and the criminal injustice foisted on The Chicago Eight.

The political polarization of today’s USA, across red and blue states, between left and right, between antifa and alt-right, between facts and lies, between news and fake news are all reflected and foretold in this remarkable work.

Some recent writers have suggested the magic realism of The Underground Railroad could be misread by Millennials who might believe the tracks and trains are historical truths.

If so, like the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, they might also believe Punishment Park is yet another Peter Watkins ‘documentary’ rather than what it actually is – a brilliant fictional ‘alternative’ history now clearly distinguished by its desolate prescience.  

Punishment Park is also streaming on YouTube. Click here to screen it.

Thursday 27 May 2021

Streaming on MUBI - Janice Tong revisits L’ANNÉE DERNIÈRE À MARIENBAD/LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD (Alain Resnais, France, 1961)

Delphine Seyrig, Giorgio Albertazzi
Last Year at Marie

This film needs no introduction and as it works on so many levels, this last repeat viewing did not diminish its aura from my viewing of it during my film school years. 

I happen to have read “The Invention of Morel” (1941) by Argentine writer, Aldolfo Bioy Casares, - of which Alain Robbe-Grillet’s screenplay of this film was based - when I was in Paris two years ago. It was my first time reading anything of Bioy's but I've been a big reader of Borges for many years now. It was through a third Argentinian writer, Alberto Manguel, whose book “A Reading Diary: A Year of Favourite Books” I was reading at the time, that had Morel as the first on the list. I was thus introduced and I subsequently found out that Bioy was a great friend of Borges and husband of the writer, artist and poet, Silvina Ocampo. She in turn, was the sister of the brilliant Victoria Ocampo, a hugely influential intellectual and publisher of the literary journal Sur. 


On the surface, the book and the film operate on a different plane. The book’s revelation of the cinematic apparatus reduces, or rather captures the narrator’s object of desire, Faustine, as an irreducible image. I am no Lacanian, but of course, the narrative reads well on that level, that of a symbolic projection, a system of signs. Resnais’ film, on the other hand, meditates on the unequivocal and perhaps non-traversable crystalline time-image of Deleuze. 


There, characters, images, stories, space, and time bifurcates. You are trapped in the ‘last year’ as repeatable instances that are nonetheless different each time it falls back on itself. 


We don’t need to understand or decipher it - the film’s beauty is in its enigmatic nature. And to reduce it to the characters of X (seducer) and A (the woman) who were intimate ‘last year’, which led ultimately to his taking her life, would be to fixate the narrative on the grounds of decipherable logic; (not to mention the temporal intrusions by M). 


By making sense of the story it restricts the film’s ability to bifurcate; and this shouldn’t be the case especially when the whole idea of the cinematic medium is to contradict, manufacture, or re-invent the temporal-logic driven confines of the real world. I would argue that a fan’s attempt ‘decipher’ Mulholland Drive(David Lynch, 2001) could only succumb to an alternate act of invention. 


This all makes me think of a scene in Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery(1993) where Allen’s character reminded Diane Keaton’s character that he took her to see Marienbad for their first date. Her retort was excellent - that she had to spend the next six months explaining to him what the film meant. They too, were stuck in the past of Marienbad.

Delphine Seyrig’s dresses (above) with lace and plumes (she was dressed by Chanel after all), her earrings, eye make up and coiffure were extremely stylised and unforgettable. The black and white cinematography of Sacha Vierny, (people who are like dotted shadows in the formal Frederiksbag topiary gardens, but are in fact shadow-less images of themselves - the shadows were painted on afterwards) was also very fine. 


Marienbad remains in a temporal suspension and holds up even after 60 years since it was released, as a luminous example of the French New Wave.

Wednesday 26 May 2021

On DVD and streaming - Shelley Jiang revives Claire Denis' second feature NO FEAR, NO DIE/S'EN FOUT LA MORT (France, 1990)

This is a rare Claire Denis film to find, being one of her earliest and least widely distributed. There are obvious comparisons to make between this effort and High Life (survival and madness in captivity, the almost anthropomorphic lurching of big machines that house the characters). But No Fear No Die's real sister film is Nenette et Boni. Although their focus is on the journey of two main characters, the core transformation is located in the characters' relationship with a kept animal/pet, and what their substitution of that animal at a critical point means about them. Here, the animal is a cock trained by Jocelyn and Dah, Beninian migrants to France. They join older Frenchman Pierre who, along with young wife Toni and his adult son, runs a restaurant in a food market and has hired the two to start up a cock-fighting betting racket on the floors beneath. 

The story seems to collapse forward rapidly after the midpoint but this narrative style suits perfectly Denis' take on the impulsiveness/automaticity of trauma-induced thought. Denis has said in interviews that she was inspired to make this film after reading Frantz Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks, which "describes a special kind of neurosis--colonized people feeling psychologically defeated even though they are physically free to determine their future". 

Questions for those who have seen the film: is Jocelyn's sexual attraction to Toni, and the desolation it strikes, manifestations of the grip of white colonial power on him as well as the corrosive sense of shame or hopelessness that this continuing grip provokes in him? I think it's hard to see the significance of the turning point of this film (the fall of the champion cock after Toni's tampering) without accepting this. The more difficult question is which came first -- Toni's influence or Jocelyn's vulnerability to her influence?

I have always admired the risks Denis takes in her storytelling (taboo themes, unconventional editing style), and this film certainly doesn't disappoint. There are visual rhymes in this film that are so direct, they can be hard to accept (Dah drops sugar cubes into Jocelyn's coffee cup with the same action he uses to feed the cocks; Jocelyn in a club swaying erratically with a woman as he does with the champion bird; the movement of Toni's neck and curly up-do mimicking the shape and movement of a cock's head). 

Denis lends her story noir dimensions, at first for fun. There are men in trenchcoats, gritty and sparsely lit concrete expanses. The scene of Pierre's arrival in which we watch from behind a glass door as he approaches from his car through the cold bleak exterior looks as if straight out of Melville. We feel excited for Jocelyn and Dah when they discuss with anticipation the spoils of this particular partnership, but the pair's consignment to dank underground living quarters suggests the beginning of a confrontation with the dire material and hierarchical reality of their work conditions as African migrants. We feel as if the exciting potential of their adventure may have been cut short.

Monday 24 May 2021

On Blu-ray - David Hare rejoices over a new edition of NIGHTMARE ALLEY (Edmund Goulding, USA, 1947)


Stan (Ty Power), the future circus geek and his two women, the "good" Molly (Coleen Gray, above)) and the Sapphic, '"evil" Lilith (Helen Walker, below)). from Edmund Goulding's uber Noir, Nightmare Alley. Screenplay by Jules Furthman and photographed by the legendary Lee Garmes.

Criterion's new Blu-ray is a long delayed and long awaited Blu-ray release from a new Fox restoration. Criterion notes the new 4K scan was taken from a nitrate composite (third or fourth generation from the now lost nitrate OCN.) The materials were held by the Fox Holdings at UCLA and restoration work has been carried out by Cineric in New York.)
James Agee reviewed the picture for The Nation on November 8, 1947 and had this to say:
"In any mature movie context these days these scenes (of pseudo-religion with fake Temples and media personalities fronting the fakery) would be no better than all right, and an intelligently trashy level of all right, at that; but this kind of wit and meanness is so rare in movies today that I had the added special pleasure of thinking, "Oh, no, they won't have the guts to do that." But they do; as long as they have any nerve at all, they have quite a lot. The rest of the show is scarcely better than average. Lee Garmes camera work is lush but vigorous."
With the last two sentences Agee betrays his lost-in-the thirties- nostalgia for a non-existent socialist cinema of deep-and-meaningful social and moral worthiness, and his snide remarks on Garmes betray his pathological loathing of formalism at the expense of the sort of Hemingway-Huston male weepiedom he so yearned for, even within his own screenplays.
As always though, Agee hits a few nails on the head. One of them nowadays is the - to me- outrageous prevalence of born again religious lunacy that's polluting the current Anglosphere in the form of so-called prosperity faiths, and happy- clappiedom, the ubiquity of which now is frankly frightening. In fact I think no-one would dare make a picture today as tough and eviscerating as Furthman's adaptation of the novel by William Lindsay Gresham. The most recent movie excursion into this territory had to be Richard Brooks' 1960 Elmer Gantry adapted from the Sinclair Lewis novel about religious hustling and scamming.
The biggest shock in all of this is the role of veteran Edmund Goulding as director. His previous popular Fox hit with Tyrone Power was the successful but compromised (by Zanuck) adaptation of Maugham's The Razor's Edge, but the bulk of Goulding's career seems to rest upon a string of expert melodramas made across several decades of the studio system.
Nightmare Alley seems to me even more shocking today than it did when I first saw it back in the 70s. And the new 4K restoration is such fine quality it adds to the jolts the picture doesn't seem to stop hitting.

The Current Cinema - Barrie Pattison recommends Zhang Yimou's CLIFF WALKERS (China, 2021) .. third week ...but hurry

Zhang Yimou is China’s most prestigious - most visible - film maker and has been since the peak days of the Fifth Generation and his1988 Hong gao liang /RedSorghum. He was their go-to guy for staging an Olympics opening. I can’t say I’m on board with all this. The only one of his films that I really like is the uncharacteristic1999  Yi ge dou bu neng shao/Not One Less, one of the small movies that lift the corner of the curtain obscuring Chinese life. 


There are brilliant passages in Zhang’s output, like the attack on the calligraphy school in 2002’s Ying xiong/Hero or Zhang Ziyi’s dance in the 2004 Shi mian mai fu/House of Flying Daggers  but I watch the director’s Gong Li movies with an unease that I don’t feel with the films of Feng Xiaogang. Feng’s 2016 whistleblower film I Am Not Madame Bovary/Wo bu shi Pan Jin Lian can be read as a correction of Zhang’s 1992 Qiu Ju da guan si/The Story of Qiu Ju and it’s a much better film. It’s now a while since we had something substantial from Feng Xiaogang.


However Zhang Yimou’s new Xuan ya zhi shang/ Impasse/Cliff Walkers has just been given a very soft opening - twice a day sessions in the George St. Centre, no editorial coverage.  


Hopes rise with the opening following its white on black titles.  In 1931 Russian-trained Chinese Communist agents are parachuted into Manchuria in the pit of winter. As the film runs we learn about Project Utrennya (Dawn) aimed at exposing the brutality of the Japanese invaders.

We start as we mean to go with a counter-spy taken down with a twig jammed in his eye in a violent confrontation. The action moves impressively from the frozen woods to the Harbin  train trip with the agents evading the Japanese police. 

There’s some great action staging - hand to hand encounters, shoot outs, car crashes 
including a spectacular one which takes down a line of telegraph poles with their icecovered wires. The vibrato-heavy scoring of these scenes is imposing. 

The design aspect is exceptional, staged in constant snow that builds up on the brims of  the black felt hats or inside of the train doors, all they say shot in forty degrees minus, looking authentic even with a lack of steam on breath. Chaplin’s Frozen North movie  The Gold Rush  is a plot element. We get the elaborate Rumanian Embassy setting, the Harbin streetscapes with vintage car traffic, the solid timber panel interiors. This carries through to the striking final image of the car smashing through
the river ice and sinking.  


The handling is punctuated by telling extreme close ups - a fountain pen nib, burning code instruction slips, the hypodermics of “psychedelics”, a lock’s key inserted and then withdrawn, the stolen revolver with the defective firing pin on the desk. Lead Zhang Yi, was star of Zhang Yimou’s previous One Second.


The violence in this film is extreme and not out of character with the director of 1991’s Dà hóng denglong gaogao guà/Raise the Red Lantern. The piece has so much sadistic detail that it becomes disturbing, going with the constant betrayal, also characteristic of Zhang Yimou’s work, to produce unpleasant viewing. This backs a none too inventive plot which is hard to follow, using so many look-alike characters it becomes confusing. Overseas commentators have remarked on this.

Whether is a good film or not, Cliff Walkers  is a major work of an important director and a revealing insight into the current Chinese film esthetic - and, we are re-assured, a tribute to the heroes of the revolution.

Sunday 23 May 2021

John Baxter invites you to join him online for a discussion the life of a writer in Paris in these “interesting times”

Editor's Note:John Baxter (pictured above) is an Australian-born all-round writer, scholar, critic and film-maker who has lived in Paris since 1989 with his wife Marie-Dominque Montel and daughter Louise. His Wikipedia entry  details the many books he has written which include the first  ever critical volume devoted to the Australian cinema as well as studies of Ken Russell, Josef von Sternberg, Stanley Kubrick, Woody Allen, Federico Fellini, George Lucas, Robert De Niro and Luis Bunuel. His most recent book, one of a number of studies of Paris is A Year in Paris, described by the New York Times thus "In “A Year in Paris,” (Baxter) strings together the beautiful beads of the French everyday, all held together by the invisible act of imagination that makes a country cohere and endure." 

 Dear Friends, 

During the current unpleasantness, I’ve been keeping my hand in with virtual walks, “webinars” (dreadful word) etc, some in association with the Context group.

The next takes place in June. I’ll be in conversation with my friend Samuel Lopez-Barrantes and we’ll be talking about the life of a writer in Paris in these “interesting times”. If you wish to sign up to participate, here is the link.

            We’ll be talking in the apartment shared by myself, Marie Dominique and Louise (not to mention Watson, the cat) in rue de l’Odéon. For those of you who haven’t visited us there, it is in the building where Sylvia Beach lived when she ran the original Shakespeare and Company bookshop, and where she and her companion Adrienne Monnier were visited by all the literary greats of the day. 

            Many of you will have heard my stories but it’s possible they have improved with age. And there will no doubt be a few new ones. I hope you can join us to hear them.

As ever,


On DVD - Janice Tong takes a fresh look at WINGS OF DESIRE/DER HIMMEL ÜBER BERLIN (Wim Wenders, West Germany, 1987)

From one library to the next, where the skies over Berlin are filled with angels. The library scenes in this film (pictured above) are my favourite.

I have not seen Wings of Desire since its theatrical release in Sydney all those years ago. However, several months back, I had a chance viewing of a small excerpt on Arte’s Blow Up Channel, (which incidentally has the most incredible collection of curated short videos, viewing cinema in a collective sense, sometimes it’s Libraries in cinema, or Bach in cinema, sometimes it is Truffaut in 9 minutes, or exploring a certain director or actor through their films, Luc Lagier and his team are cinephiles to its fullest sense) and promptly ordered a copy of the DVD online.
The film seemed to have matured since my last viewing of it, and I am glad that I have had the second chance to gain a deeper connection with this film - now a more sombre perspective has superseded the feeling of an arthouse device from the late eighties. I think it is I who has matured, and have become more in tune with what was a finely nuanced film that explored the ideas of temporality and being-in-the-world, Heidegger’s notion of Dasein. 

Thinking about the film now, it conjured up the famous painting by Hans Holbein, "The Ambassadors (1533, above))", where the larger than life anamorphic skull in the foreground is a constant reminder of where we are all headed. The riches of this world that adorn our lives, like Wenders’ rendering of our glorious existence in colour, is but for a short time. Choose what you do in life with love, to do that would be respecting the limits of your own existence.
In the film, angels are all around us, they bear witness to our existences, and ‘tune-in’ to our thoughts, guide us where they are able, but they let us live our lives, mostly, even if we succumb to suicide. As the voices come in and out of the viewer’s reach, we too, become like the angels, listening in to the private thoughts of the many around us. It soon becomes clear that the worries of a child are of no less importance or gravity than that of a businessman or a parent. 

Bruno Ganz as Damiel, an angel bearing
witness to our troubles and triumphs from above

The thoughts of a Holocaust survivor reminded me of a FB post I saw back in 2015, from an ex-serviceman who was worried that there would be no one around soon to guide the next generation to wear their poppies correctly on Remembrance day. (I’ve put their post in full below.) It seems that most thoughts that weigh on people can be lightened, by the touch on the shoulder, perhaps this touch is not only a gift from angels, but can also be from our fellow man.
Bruno Ganz was the quiet and calm angel, Damiel, (in fact, all the angels seem calm and patient), who sought the love of a woman - a trapeze artist who donned imitation wings and flew under a starless grey sky - the circus tent was the canopy of her existence. Damiel watched her practicing, attuned to her innermost fears, that of falling, with no safety net to catch her. But it was Damiel who ‘falls’, literally, into the twilight of mortality, he gave up being an angel to seek the comforts of the human - which seemed to be a small price to pay, given the scope of human emotions and sensations. To be in the world, and of the world, rather than beyond the existence of the world (thereby, beyond existence) is something that must be learnt. 

Solveig Dommartin as the beautiful trapeze artist,
her flight and wings adorn the circus and spectators alike

It’s exactly what Peter Falk (another ‘fallen’ angel) says, just to be able to rub your hands together when it’s really cold, or to smoke a cigarette; the sensations of falling in love must have been bursting Damiel’s heart. These small pleasures should not be taken for granted.
Wings of Desire should be watched again if you haven’t seen it since it’s theatrical release. It is worthwhile just to see Ganz as the ponytail-wearing black-clad angel and to see Falk as how his on-screen presence (at least to me) is remembered - in his crumbled worn-in raincoat, with hair that’s not been cut or combed for at least a year - he was truly his own Columbo parody.

Peter Falk (Columbo-like)

The post re: “How to wear your poppy on Remembrance Day”:
A lovely military man selling poppies stopped me today and asked if he could reposition mine - while doing so he told me that women should wear their poppy on their right side; the red represents the blood of all those who gave their lives, the black represents the mourning of those who didn't have their loved ones return home, and the green leaf represents the grass and crops growing and future prosperity after the war destroyed so much. The leaf should be positioned at 11 o'clock to represent the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the time that World War One formally ended. He was worried that younger generations wouldn't understand this and his generation wouldn't be around for much longer to teach them.

Saturday 22 May 2021

Spanish Film Festival 2021 - Supercinephile Barrie Pattison takes on the task of examining the offering - HEROIC LOSERS (Sebastián Borensztein, Argentina), WHILE AT WAR (Alejandro Amenßbar, Spain), WISHLIST (Álvaro Díaz Lorenzo, Spain)

Well we’ve gotten through this year’s Spanish Film Festival and I could recycle the comments I made on previous events - films better than the ones we get in other distributions on the evidence of cherry picking the program because time and cost 
made it too demanding to do it full justice.

Not surprisingly the most endearing item was Argentinian, La odisea de los giles/Heroic Losers, another piece from star Ricardo Darin and director Sebastián Borensztein, a superior caper comedy drama in the impressive line of the team’s 2016 Kóblic/Captain Koblic and their 2011 Un cuento chino/Chinese Take-Out.


In the new film, everyone is doing it tough in run down Argentinian town Alsina, where the train doesn’t stop anymore. One time local soccer hero Ricardo has a plan to revive the closed down grain storage facility, save handling costs on the crops and create jobs. He persuades his none too bright neighbours to put their savings into the scheme. “We couldn’t be doing any worse.” 


However, the crooked bank manager and sharp lawyer Andrés Parra manipulate the restrictions of  the Argentinian financial crisis Corralito to make off with the savings of Darin and his neighbours, moved from their safety deposit box into an account which is impounded.


So far so so but a vividly filmed car crash changes the direction of the piece. The victims learn about Parra’s state of the art vault concealed in a cattle pasture.


Characters whose interests run to fishing with dynamite, painting the deserted rail station and buying twin cell phones with no one to call, have to be marshalled into a sophisticated plot to get the money from the vault - out dated explosive, a remote control toy car and Darin’s son planted as a spy in Parra’s office, chatting up the secretary, along with a few hints from Wyler’s 1966 How to Steal a Million.


Their blundering attempts make them a kind of Hispanic Lavender Hill Mob and the film builds skillfully to the break-in, cross cut with the vengeful lawyer abandoning a society celebration to go racing to the scene, pistol in hand.


Considerable art conceals art with the fatal accident and the country’s descent into poverty giving weight to the superficially knockabout plot. The filming uses off-centre faces not always brightly lit and low contrast lab work to deliver the accomplished handling without traditional big picture gloss.


The audience I saw it with broke out in spontaneous applause. How’s that for an endorsement. This is a superior entertainment that should function in any release pattern. 


I don’t know that I would say that about Mientras dure la guerra/While at War,  which we are told is the first Spanish film from celebrity director Alejandro Amenßbar (Mar adentro 2004, Tesis 1996) in seventeen years. This one is packed with historical references that are likely to baffle someone who isn’t up on 1930’s Spain - Falangists, Royalists, Masons, Puritans, Legionaires, the Burgos Junta, the Marrocan colonies. 


A car load of German Nazis is given minimal respect. Someone tells us that the BBC has just reported that Federico Lorca has been shot. Who is the character with the hand gun running through the Salamanca town square shrubbery as the Nationalist troops set up there? 


Even from an imperfect understanding it’s still an impressive piece, realised on a large scale with convincing period detail.


Distinguished scholar Miguel de Unamuno, Chancellor of the University of Salamanca,  played by Karra Elejalde, is reproached by his politicised daughter for making a half year salary donation to the soldier's fund but he still  keeps the company of a Protestant Cleric and a young leftist, taking coffee with them when the streets are full of trucks of soldiers firing into the air. Nothing is clearcut, with the menacing young black shirt turning out to be an autograph hunter fan.


However, in parallel with this, attention focuses on Santi Prego as Francesco Franco, still a military officer afraid of a falso passo, an error of judgement which will make him miss the opportunity the divisions in the country represent. He refuses to make a bid for power when he doesn’t believe he has popular support but, in the film’s most rousing scene, he has the monarchists’ flag rolled out on the front of the barracks causing the troops to spontaneously break out in the Spanish National Anthem. 


Like the Juan Biadas version of  Franco in Balada triste de trompeta/Ballad for a Sad Trumpet/The Last Circus, the character is not rendered as a stock villain.  That part is given to blustering, war wounded Legion Commander Eduard Fernßndez who uses his wall eye to frighten children or drives past the column of his exhausted troops proclaiming “Viva la muerte”. 


Meanwhile Prego draws inspiration from the depiction of El Cid in the fortress-Cathedral paintings and shrewdly moves to relieve the Siege of the Alcazar though it’s value is symbolic rather than tactical. 


Dismissed by the new authorities, Elejalde is reinstated because Franco’s wife is an admirer of his work but he finds himself unable to save friends and sees his statements taken out of context to support the fascist cause.


Events come to a head in the University speech day when Elejalde is unable to stay mute and rises to deplore a divided Spain where the Basques and Catalans are vilified. Fernandez demands to speak but can only sputter when he takes the floor and falls back on blurting out “Espagna” which carries the day in a wave of fascist salutes and anthem singing. 


This is a simplification of the production’s dense and complex argument – something which is possibly too elaborate for film form to carry. Elejalde’s Unamuno, the intellectual wavering between conflicting ideologies as history is made around him, is an intriguing match with Karel Hoger’s  Obcan Brych/Citizen Brych in the 1959 Otaka Vavra Czech film, though I suspect the comparison would horrify the makers of both. 


There is no disputing that Mientras dure la guerra  is a work of high seriousness nor the excellence of its craft skills. It deserves to be treated as such. How it will fare so far from its intended audience is a matter of speculation. 


At the other extreme we get La lista de los deseos/Wishlist,  a Three Coins in the Fountain  for the Me Too generation - female buddies, fatal illness, scenery. 


In Sevilla, Maria Leon is a vet with cats named De Niro and Pacino. Her equally glamorous friend Silvia Alonso moves in after her unworthy, shaven headed live-in lover of five years presents her with a case of contraceptive pills. A breast examination by Leon’s chum (wide eyed male spectator) reveals a lump which proves to be cancer. One of those alarming head shaving sequences follows. At the clinic they meet veteran patient, the indestructible Victoria Abril and, rather than mope about waiting for test results, the three women pile into a white camper van and head for Morocco with raunchy to do lists.


I’m not the target audience for this one. It’s all a bit treacly for my taste though it has its moments - the opening where Abril whips off her wig to reveal that chemo has left her bald or the sub-plot of the patrol cop’s daughter. Of course, even the orchestra is beautiful.


The event was full of substantial films. I’ve already used Sprocketed Sources (click on the link to get there) to enthuse about Iciar Bollain’s  La boda de Rosa/Rosa’s Wedding and the savage  Intemperie/Out in the Open with Luis Tozar in top form. Throw in presentable El asesino de los capricios/The Goya Murders and No Mataras/Cross the Line 


... but what did they take on for an extended run subsequent to the festival at the Palace chain? Pablo Larrain's ridiculous Ema. Funny old world!

Thursday 20 May 2021



As Melville himself demonstrated, preparation for any task is essential. So here are some links to what has been published on the Film Alert 101 blog to coincide with the presentation of the six magnificent digital restorations soon being shown at Melbourne's Elsternwick Classic and Hawthorn Lido commencing on June 13.


Jane Mills introduces Melville and LE CERCLE ROUGE 



Shelley Jiang on First Discovering Melville




Margot Nash on Un Flic




Max Berghouse on Leon Morin, Priest




Bruce Beresford on how to attend a Melville movie 




Cristina Álvarez López & Adrian Martin's video essay and accompanying text look at 13 recurring elements in the work of Jean-Pierre Melville




Short quotes from American critics David Bordwell & Kristin Thompson, Roger Ebert, Manohla Dargis and David Thomson




To Book at the Elsternwick Classic  CLICK HERE

To Book at the Hawthorn Lido CLICK HERE

Jean-Pierre Melville comes to Melbourne - 6 of his best in superb digitally restored copies at the Elsternwick Classic and Hawthorn Lido

Following the successful presentation of  this season of six Melville films at the Randwick Ritz late last year, presented in association with Cinema Reborn and StudioCanal, the program has now been schedule for screenings in Melbourne beginning on June 13 at the Elsternwick Classic and repeated on June 14 at the Lido in Hawthorn.

The first film,  Le Cercle Rouge/Red Circle,  in the season was introduced by Assocate Professor Jane Mills of the School of the Arts and Media,  University of New South Wales. This below has been previously published on the Film Alert blog but it's worth reviving now that the films are getting more screenings in another city.

     I acknowledge the Bidjigal people of the Eora nation on whose land this cinema stands and pay my respects to their Elders past, present and emerging, and all Aboriginal people here today. Their land was stolen, never ceded. Always was, always will be, Aboriginal land


Karl Marx once said : “All men are brothers and all brothers betray each other.”  Well, no, Marx didn't say this. I’m just getting into “Melville-mode.”  Melville, a believer in authenticity not realism, often invented the quotes he used at the start of his films – as he does in the film we’re seeing today.

My bogus quote introduces two crucial Melvillian themes: brotherhood and betrayal. And a third theme lurks:  the blurred boundaries between solidarity and betrayal, criminality and justice, criminal and cop.

Starting with brotherhood: An Alsatian Jew, Jean-Pierre Grumbach (his actual family name) and his older brother Jacques grew up in Paris.  As a teenager, Jean-Pierre fell in love with cinema - if he saw less than 5 films a day, the day was wasted. He became a communist; Jacques a socialist.

Jean-Pierre felt betrayed when Stalin signed the 1939 pact with Hitler. And betrayed again a year later, when the French government signed the armistice treaty with the Nazis. At this point, both brothers joined the French Resistance. 

In 1942 Jean-Pierre crossed the Pyrenees, eventually reaching London to join the Free French Army. Taking the code-name ‘Melville’ after his favourite author, Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, he served with the Free French until the war ended. Back in Paris, he embarked upon his career, making 13 films in 26 years.

As it happen, Brother Jacques also set out over the Pyrenees in 1942. He was carrying a huge sum of money for De Gaulle. Jacques never got across the frontier. The money disappeared. In 1953 his corpse was discovered. His Spanish Republican guide had shot him and buried his body. Arrested, the guide explained Jacques broke his ankle, leaving him (the guide) no choice: his orders from the Resistance were to kill the seriously wounded rather than abandon them to be found by Nazis and thereby compromise the security of the group. 

The guide was acquitted and Melville did not appeal the judge’s decision. Or, perhaps he did – in his films. These challenge the Gaullist myth that all France supported the resistance, that the resistance comprised only trusted, faithful, loyal, that all men are brothers. They depict informers and collaborators to reveal that some freedom fighters were criminals who betrayed each other.

It’s foolish to insist that works of fiction are, or even mirror, reality. But in this true story about Melville’s bother, I detect the possible origins of his film’s blurred boundaries between brotherly solidarity and betrayal, between lawmaker and lawbreaker. In a Melville film about the Resistance (there are three), one sees gangsters at work; In a Melville crime film, one sees brotherhood amongst men seeking freedom. 

Yves Montand, Le Cercle Rouge

Le Cercle Rouge (1971)

Le Cercle Rouge, Melville’s penultimate film, is a crime film - although Melville claimed:

it's a transposed Western… the action’s in Paris not the West … cars replace horses. …I start with the traditional – almost obligatory – situation: the man just out of jail. He’s the equivalent of the cowboy riding behind the titles who pushes open the saloon doors once the credits are over.

It’s a film in which brotherhood and betrayal are at constant war and uneasy peace with each other. The three main criminals, Corey, Vogel and Jansen, played by Alain Delon, Gian-Maria Volonté and Yves Montand respectively, never betray each other but they have no qualms about betraying anyone else. The porous borders between crime and law are extremely leaky; the bonds of brotherhood are not strong:  

·       You’ll meet he bent prison officer who, by alerting the Delon character, Corey, to a possible heist in a high-class jewellers, betrays his brother, Rico.

·       Rico, it turns out,was involved in the crime that sent Corey to jail for five years; Corey never informed on him but Rico never once visited him in prison. 

·       In a further betrayal of friendship, Rico is now sleeping with Corey’s former girlfriend. She too, of course, has betrayed Corey but the film does not swerve from its emphasis on male betrayal: Corey merely dumps her photo in the waste bin. Yves Montand’s Jansen, an alcoholic, ex-police officer who was once a member of the unit that investigated police corruption, betrays his former colleagues to join the two criminals, Corey and Vogel in the magnificently performed (and filmed) heist.

·       The fence who originally agreed to receive the stolen jewellery betrays their trust when, at the behest of Rico, he refuses to accept the stolen goods. This sets in motion a chain of events that will eventually result in the three criminal’s deaths.

·       Santi, a shady nightclub owner who runs a group of illegal call girls is both a criminal and a police informer. He betrays his old friend Vogel by informing on him to the police.

·       Police Commissaire Mattei  (an inspired piece of casting of the comedian and singer André Bourvil) constantly pushes the boundaries of legality, relying on and blackmailing his informers and  one point even impersonating a criminal and his performance is all too believable.

·       Also drawn into the ring of betrayers, when illegally arrested by Mattei in order to blackmail his father, Santi’s school-age son informs on all his marijuana-using classmates.

As the General Inspector of Police  constantly intones throughout the film: “All men are guilty.” 

The film’s emphasis on men – and my emphasis on brothers - is deliberate. Melville’s films are largely woman-free and woman-unfriendly zones. Le Cercle rougecertainly is. Are the films – was Melville  misogynistic? Homophobic? Homophilic? It’s surely for you to decide. They're chilly, dark, and pessimistic about humankind and human relationships. But is there really no warmth, no glimmer of love as some critics suggest? If so, tell me why the hell, near the end of today’s film, when Alain Delon’s Corey walks out the door, left behind, Gian Maria Volonté’s Vogel clutches a red rose.

There’s much to say about Melville and this superb film - hugely admired by, among others,  John Woo, Ringo Lam, Johnnie To, Takeshi Kitano, Aki Kaurismäki, Fassbinder, Michael Mann, Walter Hill, Quentin Tarantino, William Friedkin, Jim Jarmusch and Neil Jordan.  Woo, in particular, says: “Melville is god to me.” 

But I’ll focus on the justly celebrated heist scene that has earned these admiring critiques over the years:

·       a staggering, audacious work of silent cinema;

·       a brilliant heist scene without a sound and no montage;

·       half an hour of real-time brilliance; 

·       25 minutes of almost no editing, no music, not a single word;

·       Melville forces us to listen to silence.

·       a dazzling, single, static long-take.

The scene is so dazzling that it appears to have blinded and deafened some of our most acute critics. Is it half an hour? 25 mins? No, it’s 26 mins, 48 seconds. Is it silent? Most definitely not: there are at least 122 different sounds in a magical soundscape. Is there no music? At one moment, a door on the staircase above the criminals seems to open and the sounds of party music and laughter spill out. Don't miss the subtle, non-diegetic jazz percussion sequence with drums and cymbals as Corey and Vogel pad across the rooftops. And enjoy the jewel cabinet alarms clicking off in what sounds like a round of orchestrated applause after the virtuoso rifle marksman, Jansen, hits his target. As for no editing, Melville and editor Marie-Sophie Dubus would not have been able to attain such a high level of suspense without the cross-cuts, parallel edits and shot/counter-shots, between the criminals, between interior and the exterior and between the criminals and the overwhelmed, gagged and bound guard. This is most definitely not a single long shot. As for the supposedly static camera, cinematographer Henri Decaë uses a brilliant palette of pans, zooms and tracks that all synchronise in an image-soundscape to… …yes, to blind, deafen and dazzle us. Melville knew what he was doing because he makes a sly joke: the scene before the heist ends with the words: “Let’s hear it”; the first words after it are: “They're not very talkative.”

I conclude with another’s advice on how to get into “Melville mode”: 

·       Tell nobody what you’re doing: keep even your loved ones in the dark. 

·       When choosing between smoking and talking: smoke.

·       Wear a raincoat, buttoned and belted, regardless if it’s raining. 

·       Keep your revolver, until you need it, in your coat pocket.  

·       Before leaving home, put your hat on. 

·       No hat? You can't go.

As none of you here are wearing hats, please ignore this advice. I know you’ll enjoy the film.