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Markisinnan de Sade (1992)
I have been reading a great deal about Bergman's stage productions. I found Madame de Sade stunning, the work of these actresses could not be better. Mishima's play was new to me, and I was initially puzzled why Bergman had chosen it. The obsessive nature of Madame de Sade's love for her husband seems a bit distant from his usual preoccupations, but he brings it all to life superbly.
The scene between Stina Ekblad and Anita Bjork, in which the mother drops her cool detachment to tell her daughter just what she thinks of her daughter's participation in an orgy has a brutal force that sent me back to the Bergman classics of the 1960's. Marie Richardson has a scene in monologue in which she describes the death of a character so graphically and so disturbingly that she stops the show. Acting and directing like this comes so rarely to us.
La mort en ce jardin (1956)
Not so great
I often turn to the Time Out Film Guide, to see what they think of films... They got it wrong for this one: "Its garish, vicious action beats Sam Fuller at his own game". Well it does no such thing. This is sub-par Bunuel at best. The first part, set in the little town in Mexico is easily eclipsed by Treasure of the Sierra Madre, a much funnier and tougher film. Just think of the interplay between Bogart, Walter Huston and Tim Holt and grimace at the clunky efforts of Marchal, Vanel and Piccoli. From a John Huston classic, we pass to a whimsical jungle story that Howard Hawks could have told with much better pace and wit (I think of Hatari!). Oh the waste of all these talented people.
Simone Signoret has a thankless part of a prostitute (which she played much better in Dédée d'Anvers), a misconceived part that does not fit in the story very well. Piccoli cannot play a priest and should have known better than to try. He is much better as a libertine--he played Sade in La voie lactée. Gérard Philipe would have been much better as the priest. Marchal is no great shakes but at least fits the part. He reminds me a bit of Stewart Granger. Vanel is somewhat at home as the old prospector; at least he had often played action roles.
At first glance, a writer like Alice Munro is a very odd choice for Almodovar. I can't think of an artist less like the Spanish director. Her quiet, restrained and disciplined writing is the polar opposite of the man who gave us Todo sobre mi madre. Yet it works, because Almodovar is seeking a more profound way of communication, without the glamour and tawdriness he came to prominence with.
Emma Suarez is very effective here; she reminds me of Annette Bening at her best. Adriana Ugarte is less accomplished, relying on a fetching smile to make her points. The other actors give good support. I liked Daniel Grao as the fisherman who wins Julieta's heart.
Not so great
Luigi Comencini made a couple of mildly entertaining films: La boheme with Barbara Hendricks and L'ingorgo. Mostly the tone is bitter-sweet, the colour scheme soft, somewhat washed out and the dramatic level is low. So it is here, with Laura Antonelli (her body could revive a dead man, I sometimes think) and Alberto Lionello playing this silly charade of brother and sister. Michele Placido has some fun playing the chauffeur--and how long does it take him to get her out of her clothes so they can have sex? The plot twists and turns would take too long to recount, and I don't want to use spoilers anyway. The scenes with Karin Schubert and the ladies who obsess over D'Annunzio are really tiresome and should have been deleted.
Un conte de Noël (2008)
I'm dreaming of a white Christmas
I've sat through a couple of Desplechin-Bourdieu films (Esther Kahn, Comment je me suis dispute) that I've hated. Long, talky and pointless, I thought. But Un Conte is different; it carefully brings a family to life in all its complexity. The father is patient with those around him when he could easily be bitter and harsh: it is a superb performance by Jean Paul Roussillon. Catherine Deneuve as the mother glides through her part but we can't be critical because she gives the movie so much star power (just as Cary Grant did for four Hitchcock pictures).
The children are very well acted. Henri will be a screw-up for the rest of his life but will win people's affection, certainly he did mine. Ivan's easy fatherhood skills and laissez-faire approach to his wife's infidelity are memorable. Elizabeth's attitude towards Henri is the most problematic thing in the film. We have to take it on faith that his behaviour has been so awful that she is justified in taking the action she does. Anne Consigny gives a moving performance as the sister with a grievance.
It's very good
I suppose the best way to watch opera videos these days is to ignore the plodding, philistine production--often designed by someone who has never seen an opera--and just concentrate on the singers, as though we are back in the days of LP's. The singers are very good here, especially Diana Damrau as Konstanze, and Franz Selig as Osmin, oily and so much fun to watch. Then too there is the Blonde of Olga Peretyatko, a singer new to me whom I will have to watch for in the future (I'd love to hear her Rossini album).
The preceding review describes the visual flaws in this production better than I can. I had a good time looking at the photos in the Victor Book of the Opera, and dreaming of a time when operatic kings dressed like kings, bishops like bishops, dairy maids like dairy maids and so on and so on. Sigh.
Carta a Eva (2012)
Terrific performance by Julieta Cardinali
Spain emerged from the Second world war with its cities and infrastructure more or less intact--bearing in mind the bombardments from the rebel air force--but with a terrible political problem: no big western country wants to trade with a country that had supported the Axis during the war. The only country that wants to trade with Franco's regime is Argentina, run with an iron fist and cynical humour by Juan Peron. Desperately, with his people on the verge of starvation, Franco asks Peron to visit. Peron counters with an offer of Eva, the spectacular goddess of the poor. The two episodes of Carta a Eva have a running battle between Dona Carmen, Franco's wife, and Eva Peron whose love of the working class smacks too much of Marxism for Dona Carmen's liking.
I give the highest rating to Julieta Cardinali, who not only plays Eva very well but looks so much like her they could be twins. Ana Torrent, the little girl in Erice's Espiritu de la colmena, plays Dona Carmen very well: dry, obsessed with propriety and tiresome for everybody around her. Jesus Castejon is Franco, the calm that hides a ruthless temperament (at one point he says his hand doesn't tremble as he signs execution warrants and you believe him). The second plot of the terrorists arrested after they plant a bomb is not as effectively worked out, although Nora Navas is good as one of the condemned.
Il grido (1957)
Aldo's way takes him through the northern Italian region he knew in his youth. Gianni di Venanzo's photography is superb, capturing the bleak atmosphere of small towns: houses run down, cheap gas stations, a school in the middle of nowhere. There is nobody like Antonioni for portraying empty spaces leading nowhere.
Aldo is as confused a character as one can find in European cinema. His life with Irma is over-she doesn't love him anymore-but he insists on moving on with his daughter. Elvia and her sex pot sister Edera offer no shelter to this man, who can't afford to bring up a child. He gets lucky, it seems with Virginia and her crazy dad at the gas station, but still he manages to alienate her. The last stop is a rundown shack with a prostitute. The four actresses--Alida Valli, Betsy Blair, Dorian Grey and Lyn Shaw--all play well. Steve Cochran at least has the advantage of a sturdy build even if his acting skills are limited.
If Il grido is not as fine as L'avventura or Le amiche from the early period, it is still very good work.
Les caves du 'Majestic' (1945)
Albert Prejean as Maigret
This film was made in the last year of German occupation, when things were really difficult for the French. That's why you'll see women wearing fur coats in restaurant scenes for added warmth--there was hardly any coal left to heat buildings. The story is told well enough--we get Suzy Prim for about ten minutes at the start, when other versions dispense with her character altogether, and that's a bonus. Denise Grey as a lonely rich woman, Gabriello as Lucas and Rene Genin as Ramuel all do well. The problem is Prejean as Maigret.
I've seen him played by Gabin, Cremer, Gambon, Pierre Renoir and a few others, and I have to say Prejean is ineffective in the part. His reedy voice, slim figure and breezy, bullying manner just don't bring the man to life. The solidity and grace the character always showed are missing. One scene will serve to show what I mean: Maigret arrives at Donge's house to question him and his wife. Satirical remarks instead of probing questions are the style. We learn nothing here, when Gambon and Cremer make so much more of the material.
Au bonheur des dames (1930)
Skimps on character and content
Zola's novel starts with Denise arriving in Paris and finishes some 500 pages later in what might be called a happy ending. In between are so much character detail and socio-economic ideas that the BBC could have made a six-hour miniseries out of it. Alas, that option was not open to Duvivier in 1929 as he was shooting this film. The young (early 30's) director had studied the Soviet artists closely; Dziga Vertov and Fritz Lang must have been familiar to him. As a result, we have some very impressive split screen work for the delusions of Baudu.
Dita Parlo keeps looking like a girl scout most of the time--she does not take direction well. Pierre de Guingand as Mouret is given little to work with; we don't know why he's so smitten with Denise. Germaine Rouer as the grasping socialite does impressive work; she's one of the few characters who is given a personal story to work with.