A movie full of 1930’s big loud actors portraying 1750’s big loud actors trying to out-act each other. Brian Aherne (in both the 1950’s Titanic movie and a 1940’s movie with the same title as another Titanic movie) is Garrick, the “greatest” actor in Britain, off to France to work with the Comedie Francaise, but after a perceived insult they intercept him at an inn, pretending to be innkeepers and patrons, scripting a plot to make a fool of him. He’s onto their scheme and plays along, but Olivia de Havilland shows up unexpectedly and nobody knows what to do with her. Whale seems to excel at making horror movies that are secretly comedies, and when he makes a straight comedy here it’s not so amusing. The wikis say that Whale made an anti-nazi movie in 1937 that was neutered in re-editing by his nazi sympathizer bosses at Universal, so this wasn’t his year.
The novel was a subjective-ish story of frustration and embarrassment, and the movie is a whole different thing – some of the same scenes in the same order, but more mysterious. It’s unusual anymore that I read a book in anticipation of a new movie coming out, so it’s hard to imagine what the viewing experience would’ve been like had I not already known the story. For instance, the three sections of the book are set in different years, clearly stated, where the movie will just cut to the next scene and suddenly Zama’s hairstyle is different and every other character we’d met is gone, replaced with a new cast.
As usual for Martel, the framing is enticingly unusual, but I was not prepared for the shock of saturated color in the last section. Each of her features has had a different cinematographer – Rui Poças is Portuguese, has also shot a bunch of films by Miguel Gomes (Tabu) and João Pedro Rodrigues (The Ornithologist). Almodóvar regular Lola Dueñas is Luciana, whose affair doesn’t go as far as in the book. Zama is Daniel Giménez Cacho, who apparently played the same coroner character in We Are What We Are as he did in Cronos.
More deadpan sketches from the Songs from the Second Floor creator. Seems more despairing than funny, focusing mainly on two terrible novelty salesmen, but it’s punctuated by some crazy and memorable scenes – like when King Karl XII’s entire army passes by a modern-day bar, and the king enters on horseback – then again a few scenes later, defeated by the Russians (which actually took place in 1709). Then there’s the one scene of generous warmth and happiness, set in another bar run by Limping Lotta, who sings that she’ll trade drinks for kisses from the soldiers.
The final shot in Pigeon, and therefore of the trilogy, involves random citizens at a bus stop, trying to help a confused man decide if it’s Wednesday. “But it feels like Thursday,” he protests. After awhile, an older man in a suit delivers the final word: “You can’t feel what day it is. Yesterday was Tuesday. Today is Wednesday. Tomorrow is Thursday. You have to keep track of these things. If you don’t keep track of that, chaos will reign.” This pronouncement, gentle but firm, is the voice of liberal democracy, avuncular but brooking no disagreement. Some of us take years to sort out what it means for us to be human. But this man knows. If Pigeon finds Andersson lost in a shell game where every move is the same, it’s probably because this voice, and others like it, are winning every time.
Won the top prize at Venice, where it played alongside Birdman, The Look of Silence and 99 Homes – and Tsukamoto’s Fires on the Plain, which has barely been heard from since.
I found it funny that Dido (“Belle”) calls her sister-cousin Elizabeth “Beth” (sounds like Bête).
Director Amma Asante is daughter to immigrants from Ghana, sadly no relation to Armand Assante.
The painting is nice – both the fake one in the movie and the real one they show over the credits.
Based on the diaries of Catherine The Great of Russia, the story felt like it spanned maybe a year or two, but wikipedia says it was sixteen years between her marriage and the coup she arranged to replace her husband on the throne.
Marlene Dietrich plays Sophia (Catherine is her Russian title), at first a naive girl from the country married to a not-handsome prince (Sam Jaffe of The Day the Earth Stood Still), instead entranced by a count (John Lodge of Murders in the Zoo, future governor of Connecticut).
Marlene and the count:
Catherine is under great scrutiny until she bears her “husband” a son (he’s only momentarily bothered by the fact that they never slept together), then she’s free to run around having affairs and plotting. Nothing is done while queen Elizabeth is in charge, but once Catherine’s husband becomes emperor he doesn’t last a year before his wife has taken over. Catherine has caught the Count fooling around with the former queen, realizes he’s just sleeping around with whoever’s in power, and throws him over.
Katy and I would’ve liked to see more than a minute of screen time with Dietrich as the actual empress – didn’t know that would be where the movie dead-ends. Sternberg is, of course, much more concerned with his camera angles and lighting, and most importantly, shooting Dietrich through a series of filters and gauzes and screens. The wedding scene is an incredible cinematography show-reel, each shot outdoing the last.
The connecting theme of all the von Sternberg/Dietrich films might be expressed as a question: How does a woman, and at what cost, assert herself within an overwhelmingly male-dominated world? Each film offers a somewhat different answer (but none very encouraging), steadily evolving into the extreme pessimism and bitterness of The Scarlet Empress and achieving its apotheosis in their final collaboration The Devil Is a Woman.
R. Keser calls it the last great pre-code film, says it “mocks Hollywood’s conventional groveling toward royalty.”
“You’ll be your own downfall.”
The Lady of the title is Grace Elliott, a Brit in France during the 1789-93 French Revolution. Actually the French title is L’anglaise et la duc but Grace is Scottish, claiming English nationality for simplicity when it’s suddenly very dangerous to be a French aristocrat in France. The movie’s intertitles and much dialogue are taken directly from her diaries.
The Duke is one of my favorite Jean-Pierre Jeunet actors, but I didn’t recognize anyone else. Star Lucy Russell has failed to break into the Hollywood mainstream (landing such roles as “female restaurant guest” and “classy shopper #3” in recent big films). Ach, I missed Alain Libolt (Renaud in Out 1) as the Duke of Biron.
Renaud plus 30 years:
Grace is pure aristocracy, the very target of the revolution, and her sympathies lie with her friends whom she sees being rounded up and killed by the brutish masses. Steadfast in her devotions (though lying to stay alive), she’s contrasted with her friend the Duke, who changes with the times and ends up voting for the execution of the king. Plays like one of Rohmer’s Moral Tales only with more action, more heads on stakes, and more awesome digital backdrops of period Paris standing in for the usual stifling production design and avoidance of outdoor shots (except by filmmakers with Scorsese-budgets). Slant, in fact, called it an “economical antidote to the bloated costume drama.” Grace tries to negotiate the changing world without compromising her belief in the class system, while the Duke either adapts his morals or never had any to begin with. The main thing this movie has over the other Rohmers I’ve seen is historical interest… I delighted in the details of the revolution, about which I know very little. I thought the movie rather anti-revolution, which seems shockingly out of fashion, and one “Grunes” confirms that this was a problem:
Rohmer pitches the action from Elliott’s perspective, with which his own Roman Catholic penchant for order prompts him to identify—hence, the controversy the film engendered in France. Thus the street mobs are unwashed, grisly, barbaric, obscene; poor Louis XVI!
It’s hard to know what to make of the movie’s politics. There’s also a long scene where she successfully hides a Marquis from the police. We don’t get to know the guy very well, but he’s not made out as a man who deserves to die, so bravo, I guess. When Grace is finally arrested and held for two days for possession of a letter from an Englishman, the letter ironically turns out to praise the French revolution to the heavens. These examples and the duality in the title make it seem relatively even-handed, despite being adapted from Grace’s own horrified writings.
Duke Jean-Claude Dreyfus:
Watched this the night the director died. It got mentions on decade-end lists, with some screenshots that got stuck in my head (like the one below, peering into a painting with a telescope), so I’d planned to watch it soon anyway. I didn’t hear much when it came out, probably because of the timing (sept-oct, 2001). Beaten out for its only two César nominations by Amelie and Brotherhood of the Wolf.
The moral dilemmas that Grace and the Duke face are diagrammed, in Mr. Rohmer’s inimitable fashion, with equal measures of clarity and complexity. The director manages to evade both the stuffy antiquarianism and the pandering anachronism that subvert so many cinematic attempts at historical inquiry. His characters are neither costumed moderns, just like us only with better furniture, nor quaint curiosities whose odd customs we observe with smug condescension. They seem at once entirely real and utterly of their time. And the time itself feels not so much reconstructed as witnessed.
I’ll close by outright stealing an entire blog post by from Glenn Kenny, only because I want to always be able to find this Rohmer quote.
My films, you say, are literary: The things I say could be said in a novel. Yes, but what do I say? My characters’ discourse is not necessarily my film’s discourse.
There is certainly literary material in my tales, a preestablished novelistic plot that could be developed in writing and that is, in fact, sometimes developed in the form of a commentary. But neither the text of these commentaries, nor that of my dialogues, is my film: Rather, they are things that I film, just like the landscapes, faces, behavior, and gestures. And if you say that speech is an impure element, I no longer agree with you. Like images, it is a part of the life I film.
What I say, I do not say with words. I do not say it with images, either, with all due respect to partisans of pure cinema, who would speak with images as a deaf-mute does with his hands. After all, I do not say, I show. I show people who move and speak. That is all I know how to do, but that is my true subject. The rest, I agree, is literature.
—From “Letter to a critic [concerning my Contes moraux]”
Action of the movie spans 400 years, with title cards telling us when we are.
1600 – Death
Young Orlando is favored by Queen Elizabeth I (gay performer/activist Quentin Crisp – I must see his 70’s Hamlet), who orders him to never grow old.
1610 – Love
Orlando is smitten with a visiting Russian princess (Charlotte Valandrey). They ice skate together, O. pledges his undying love, and when she leaves the country he attempts a romantic rescue but gets his ass kicked.
1650 – Poetry
Orlando is obsessed with poetry, and decides to sponsor acclaimed poet Nick Greene (Heathcote Williams of Jarman’s The Tempest). O. tries his own hand at poetry, unsuccessfully.
1700 – Politics
Orlando goes to “the east” as an ambassador, hangs out with the Khan (Lothaire Bluteau of Jesus of Montreal), accidentally gets involved in a war. Filmed in Uzbekistan!
1750 – Society
Back home, Orlando wakes up one day as a woman. She puts on the most massive gown she can find and goes out to a small party held by Archduke Harry (John Wood of Richard III). She’d met Harry in 1700 (he’s barely aged – the movie does not treat its timeframe very literally) and he is very intrigued… offers to marry her, then curses her when she refuses. Also at the party: high-haired Kathryn Hunter (who played a plot contrivance in the last Harry Potter), Roger Hammond (Demy’s Pied Piper), Peter Eyre and Ned Sherrin.
1850 – Sex
Orlando runs through a hedge maze straight into 1850, where she meets and falls for Billy Zane. I know, right? Billy Zane!
No date in this segment – set in the present. Orlando motorcycles to her publisher’s office, where they tell her they won’t publish the book she’s been writing for 400 years without some changes. She doesn’t take this hard, goes to the park with her daughter (played by Tilda’s daughter). Daughter has a video camera, they see an angel flying over the trees, segue from that totally nuts image into the closing credits.
Must say I had high hopes and this movie smashed them all Godzilla-like. The movie is a mighty masterpiece, scoffing at my insufficiently-high hopes! It has as much to say about life and how to live it, fleeting relationships and the nature of time as The Benjamin Buttons, but it says them more elegantly (I know I’ve been hard on The Ben Buttons lately – I actually liked it a lot). Plus it must be the most beautiful super-feminist film I’ve seen… I’ll bet college kids love to write theses on it (a google search reveals this to be true).
Potter says the movie is “about the claiming of an essential self, not just in sexual terms. It’s about the immortal soul.”
Music cowritten by Potter, has Fred Frith on guitar, mostly good, peppered with some late-80’s-sounding beats. Same cinematographer who shot Potter’s Yes. Movie was nominated for a buncha awards, incl. oscars, but lost to The Piano, Age of Innocence and Schindler’s List. Won some stuff in Venice and Greece and I feel pretty good about that.
“Don’t waste your time in the so-called real life.”
One of my new favorite movies! Rivette must’ve dug this one, being about theatrical performances bleeding into real life, with characters and camera always behind and in front of screens and fences, sheets and curtains.
An Italian theater company arrives “in a Spanish colony of Latin America” in the early 1700’s and attempt to build a theater and make a living amongst locals who care more about bullfighting. Camilla, the lead actress of the group (Anna Magnani in an amazing, vibrant performance) entertains the affections of three fans: the local star bullfighter, the viceroy (who offers her the titular coach) and troupe member Felipe, who wants to settle down in the wilds of America. With the threat of duels, revolution, prison and worse, Camilla contrives a way out, donating her coach to the church and retreating back behind the curtain, letting all three men off the hook. Movie (this version of it, anyway) is in English, with a wild mix of accents.
In interview, Renoir says he was highly concerned with color (it is brilliant – see shot above), with Anna’s wonderful acting, with being able to change the script and with playing around with the nature of acting, on the stage and in real life.
Renoir: “My principal collaborator on this film was the late Antonio Vivaldi. I wrote the script while listening to records of his music, and his wit and sense of drama led me on to developments in the best tradition of the Italian theater.”
Andrew Sarris: “To claim, as reviewers at the time did, that Renoir had failed to produce a convincing narrative, is to scorn Matisse and Picasso for not painting plausible pictures.”
Andre Bazin: “Renoir directs his actors as if he liked them more than the scenes they are acting and preferred the scenes which they interpret to the scenario from which they come. This approach accounts for the disparity between his dramatic goals and the style of acting, which tends to turn our attention from his aims. The style is added to the script like rich paint liberally added to a line drawing…”
J. Rosenbaum: “As Bazin suggests, the actors are employed as if they were different kinds of paint, freely spilling over the initial designs, but it’s worth adding that the colors are employed on occasion as if they were actors – a splash of yellow or blue in an incidental decor carrying all the allure of a memorable extra.”
All three films are comic period fantasies in dazzling color, offering a kind of continuous, bustling choreography in which shifting power relations between upper and lower classes and between spectators and performers literally turn the world into a kind of theater. In this respect, they might be said to offer more abstract and less politically anchored versions of the films Renoir made during the thirties. Unlike their predecessors, they’re deliberately removed from real life. And given the sense of political as well as the personal defeat that came with the war and his departure from France, followed by a lengthy period of living in exile, they’re unable to hide a subtle aftertaste of regret lurking behind all that gaiety – a sense that utopia can only be found, if at all, on a soundstage, not in the Popular Front that once meant so much to Renoir. This sadness only occasionally rises to the surface, as in the memorable exchanges between actors Camilla and Don Antonio at the very end: “Felipe, Ramon, the viceroy… disappeared.” “Now they are part of the audience. Do you miss them?” “A little.”
Scorsese says there were versions in Italian and French, and that the ending (which looks like it came from a degraded print) was newly restored in the 90’s.
Don Antonio, leader of the actors group, played by Odoardo Spadaro of Divorce, Italian Style:
Rome’s Cinecitta studio was equipped for sync sound recording in the 50’s? You wouldn’t know it from the Italian movies I’ve seen.
A few comic reminders that we’re in the 18th century: “Tomorrow papa is being bled with leeches, the day after I have my purge.”
The three men, below from left to right:
– Ramon the bullfighter – Riccardo Rioli, whose film acting career began the year before, and ended the year after with a small part in a Mankiewicz picture.
– The Viceroy – Scottish Duncan Lamont, charming in this, later in Mutiny on the Bounty and Quatermass and the Pit.
– Felipe: American Paul Campbell, who was a beef-and-cheesy enough actor to get himself cast in The Deadly Mantis. He lived long enough to have seen the MST3K version – here’s hoping he did.
The great Anna Magnani plays Camilla. Star of Mamma Roma, Bellissima and Rome, Open City, she also beat out Kate Hepburn and three other Americans for the 1955 Oscar for The Rose Tattoo.
“Where is truth? Where does the theater end and life begin?”