La Mémoire Courte (1982, Eduardo de Gregorio)

U.N. translator Nathalie Baye (Détective, La chambre verte, DiCaprio’s mom in Catch Me If You Can) is hired for a job involving the nazi-investigation papers of a man played by Jacques Rivette in flashbacks. Gregorio cowrote many of Rivette’s films, and he’s joined here by Rivette, the Lubtchanskys, Hermine Karagheuz (Out 1‘s Marie) and Bulle Ogier (and I might’ve spotted Barbet Schroeder in a dinner party scene). Given the personnel it’s clearly a must-watch for Rivette fans, and now that I’ve finally found and seen a subtitled copy, it’s a must-watch-again, since I’m afraid I got lost in the multinational conspiracy. Then again, maybe that was the idea.

Double dose of Rivette and Karagheuz:

Rivette was seeking a nazi called Andros, possibly with help from a mysterious Holocaust survivor called Mr. Mann. Baye tracks down a woman of Andros’s acquaintance, but Bulle is unhelpful. Baye talks to a guy named Franck (Philippe Léotard of a couple early 1970’s Truffaut films), who provides elegant flashbacks about Bulle’s history with a general working for Andros, selling new passports to escaped nazis. But Andros may actually be Mann, who may have killed Franck’s parents, and he’s out for revenge. The movie ends with Mann unhurt and unexposed, Franck injured and police seeking his accomplice Baye.

Baye, cornered:

Nice shadowy conspiracy drama (Rosenbaum calls it “a film noir in color”) with good music (a nervous piano rumble) and stylish flashbacks. Gregorio and cowriter Edgardo Cozarinsky are from Argentina, a country known for harboring nazis after WWII. In their contemporary review NYTimes claimed Philippe Léotard played either the general or Andros – is that true?

Oh yeah look at that, they’ve got the same eyes.
Then who’s Eduardo Manet, who IMDB says plays the general in flashbacks?

The Dance of Reality (2013, Alejandro Jodorowsky)

You expect a new Jodorowsky movie to be bonkers, and I was skeptical because movies this bonkers are usually wannabe-cult empty-headed nonsense. Text descriptions of a boy with a huge-breasted mom whose dialogue is all sung opera-style and a dad who gets surrounded by miners missing limbs all singing their woes would raise a few red flags, but AJ makes it all seem rich and wonderful, then tones down the circus act and pulls off a surprisingly emotional second half.

Explores AJ’s own childhood in 1930’s Chile, the same way Guy Maddin explored his childhood in Brand Upon The Brain and My Winnipeg, keeping emotional truths and memorable details and poetically inventing the rest. Young AJ is followed around by wise old AJ (playing himself as a phantom narrator), and as usual it’s a family affair, with AJ’s son Brontis (the little kid from El Topo!) playing the father (and I’m guessing a real opera singer as the mom).

Jaime is an ex-circus performer (see also: Santa Sangre), volunteer fireman and passionate communist ashamed of his timid, long-haired art-loving son Alejandro. Jaime’s wife (they run a shop together) is obsessed with her dead father, thinks he is reincarnated in her son because of the long hair, which Jaime finally has cut off, causing family disharmony. Jaime tries to man-up his son, giving him painful challenges, while young Alejandro’s other influences are the colorful characters around town.

After the death of his fire chief and a failed attempt to help plague-afflicted slum-dwellers, Jaime regroups and decides to journey to the capital and assassinate tyrant president Ibáñez. First Jaime protects the president from a fellow communist in order to earn a position as the president’s personal horse groom, planning a more insidious revenge. But after poisoning the president’s prize horse according to plan, Jaime can’t murder the man, his hands becoming useless claws, then loses his memory and disappears into the slums, while back home Alejandro’s mom teaches her son a different way to disappear, showing him how not to be noticed to avoid antisemitic discrimination from the locals. Jaime regains his self-worth only to be captured and tortured by nazis on the way home – but he does get home, and the family flees their fucked-up town.

Colorful, beautiful movie that can’t go five minutes without doing something different and amazing, also with judicious use of digital effects. I love a good imaginary history, and after all the family affection (and pain, let’s face it) in this movie, I was shocked to read wikipedia’s cold version of AJ’s childhood. AJ: “My father had no humanity. So here, look, I am making him human.”

P. Bradshaw:

For the first time, Jodorowsky is coming close to telling us how personal evasiveness has governed his film-making style; his flights of fancy are flights of pain, flights from childhood and flights from reality. And now he is using his transformative style to come to terms with and change the past and to confer on his father some of the heroism that he never attained in real life.

Quintin in Cinema Scope:

The Dance of Reality works as an exorcism of an era where false and destructive dreams were also the hope for mankind, and when children were educated through abuse by their parents and by society. But Jodorowsky, one of these abused children, finally became as brave as young Alex is told to be in the film: he dares in his film to take on all of those issues, to speak freely about love and sex, fascism and communism and sorrow and pain and happiness, and to make his personal circus travel the world with brilliance.

My 2000th blog post!

The Keep (1983, Michael Mann)

A movie about nazis being killed off by aliens should’ve been more entertaining – besides a really fantastic smoke-monster effect, this was only pretty good. It tries to be very serious and sets up many conflicts (good alien/bad alien, good nazi/bad nazi, nazis/jews, etc.) then doesn’t do anything wonderful with any of these things.

Trevor: “it fell apart for me when none of the story mattered… mystery invincible guy with glowing eyes walks in and defeats the beast, the worst execution of deus ex machina.”

Smoke Monster, de-smoked:

Okay, Nazis led by Jurgen Prochnow (Sutter Cane in In the Mouth of Madness, and I think Kyle’s dad in Dune) occupy a Romanian town and camp in an empty fortress watched over by a priest (Robert Prosky of Christine and Gremlins 2), who calls in his professor friend Ian McKellen with daughter Alberta Watson (Hedwig/Hansel‘s mom) to translate ancient writings after soldiers keep showing up dead. Prochnow isn’t murdering enough villagers, so the more ruthless Gabriel Byrne (three years before Gothic) is sent to take charge, later shoots Prochnow dead. Smoke Monster heals the formerly-crippled Ian McKellen, says he’s a golem-like Jewish avenger who will crush all nazis if Ian frees him. The priest gets all shitty and tells Ian he can burn in hell (admittedly all the nazis might be stressing him out), meanwhile Mystery Invincible Guy (top-billed Scott Glenn, Jodie Foster’s boss in Silence of the Lambs) has sex with Ian’s daughter until she notices he has no reflection. I think Invincible Guy and the nazis and Smoke Monster all kill each other at the end?

Alberta with sex alien:

Ian under Smoke Monster’s spell:

Second movie I’ve watched this Shocktober where the first death is by exploding head. TV veteran Mann’s second feature, which he has since disowned, based on a story by the guy who wrote Pelts. The actors act as big as possible (apparently Ian McKellen has mellowed with age) and the then-trendy Tangerine Dream soundtrack does the nazi-horror atmosphere no favors. But it’s a startlingly different movie, anyway.

Natan (2013, Paul Duane & David Cairns)

Not as relentlessly Decasian as the trailer suggests, actually settles down into a normal storytelling groove of interview material for a good while, but punctuated by Natan’s papier-mache-headed stand-in, a few effects shots of a wall of posters, and that voiceover by The Film Itself. These are all evocative additions – the poster gallery returns re-postered before and after the nazi invasion, and some of the scant footage of Natan himself, at his trial, has him repeatedly covering his head with a newspaper. This is already more thoughtful stylistic presentation than most documentaries get, then the voiceover and bookending Melies stories put it over the top.

Plus the story is killer, one of those subjects that researchers dream of – a chance to correct the wrongs of history. Bernard Natan isn’t set up as a saint, but at the very least an important figure in history, a founder of French cinema who deserved a better end and reputation than he got. The directors even scored an interview with the academic who brought the unfounded rumors and nazi-era smears into the modern age, a villain of the picture though he doesn’t seem to realize it.

Contraband (1940, Michael Powell)

I’ve seen a lot of wartime films by the Powell/Pressburger crew, but this one was the most fun.

Neutral ship captain Conrad Veidt (Casablanca and Thief of Bagdad baddie) and his passengers and crew are stuck at a British port having their ship searched for contraband, when a tough-talkin’ broad (Valerie Hobson of Bride of Frankenstein, Kind Hearts and Coronets) slips away. Conrad secretly follows her to shore, finds out she’s a spy, gets involved in hijinks, and foils some sort of nazi plot.

They’re all gonna laugh at you, Conrad:

To attract police attention to the baddies’ lair, Conrad turns on all the lights during the war blackout:

It was easy to follow at the time, but a month later the details are hazy. I remember the girl’s co-conspirator was Mr. Pigeon (Esmond Knight, the old guy who tosses an arrow into the king at the start of Robin and Marian), that the baddy is Van Dyne (Raymond Lovell, later in 49th Parallel). They recruit an excitable Danish chef, the brother of an officer on Conrad’s ship (played by the same actor since they share no scenes), who almost steals the film.

The credits boldly name this scene the “White Negro” Cabaret:

A. Ives for Senses:

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger … would later get into considerable trouble with Churchill on The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, when they suggested that not all Germans were bad, and that traditional British codes of honour were meaningless in fighting such a ruthless enemy as the Nazis. Britain had to fight dirty, they essentially argued. These theories are also propagated by Contraband, if in a somewhat undercooked fashion. So Veidt fights dirty as he tracks down the Nazis – beating up some British officers in his quest – while the meta-cinema of Contraband (mentioned above) clearly shows an affection for a lost Germany [references Fritz Lang, stars Conrad from Cabinet of Dr. Caligari].

Inside the nazi lair:

Our friendly spies are surely doomed:

But wait! Conrad’s in the elevator with a gun:

Shootout ensues in a bust warehouse:

Buy from Amazon:
Contraband DVD

Rome, Open City (1945, Roberto Rossellini)

I get conflicting messages on Rossellini: either he can do no wrong or he did only wrong, either his early stuff was groundbreaking then he dried up or he did his best work late in his career, either he told the ultimate truths in cinema or he was a deceitful opportunist. Fortunately, the exhaustive Criterion box of his early “war trilogy” went on sale, so now I shall see for myself. I watched Germany Year Zero on Turner Classic a decade ago, and it stands out as one of the most affecting (depressing) movies I have ever seen, so I’m inclined to think I’ll like the trilogy – and so far, so good.

Not an incredibly “neorealistic” movie – as the DVD commentary ceaselessly points out, it’s “far closer to the traditional melodrama or suspense film than to any realistic documentary.” But RR shot (partially) on the streets and at real locations, with (some) non-actors, using borrowed and stolen film stock for a (somewhat) newsreel-like texture, and so a movement was born. Visconti’s Ossessione was shot earlier, but wasn’t distributed outside Italy and its story didn’t have Open City’s sense of post-war rebirth.

Pina (the great Anna Magnani of The Golden Coach) is to marry Francesco. After F’s friend Manfredi goes on the run, the resistance descends on Pina’s apartment. The sympathetic, somewhat comic priest who is to marry her, Don Pietro (Aldo Fabrizi, later in Flowers of St. Francis) volunteers to help. But the nazis are hot on Manfredi’s trail, with help from his poorly-chosen girlfriend, a drug-addicted dancer named Marina who betrays him. They round up Francesco before his wedding, leading to the famous scene where Magnani is gunned down chasing after the truck that holds him.

I’ve seen that scene a bunch of times out of context, never realized it’s not the end of the movie, just of the first half. In the second half, Francesco is immediately freed from the prison truck by resistance fighters (making his fiancee’s death that much more pointless, as the commentary points out), but in a subsequent raid the priest and Manfredi are arrested, along with an Austrian deserter who Don Pietro was helping. There’s some scripty business among the nazis to point out the general weakness of their cause. After the deserter kills himself in his cell and Manfredi dies under torture, having never revealed the resistance secrets, Don Pietro is shot in front of the children he used to play with, little resistance fighters themselves, who will survive the nazi occupation that had just barely ended when this movie went into production.

When the movie’s lead nazis invite the weak, drugged-up Marina to their palace, show off her tortured-to-death boyfriend then steal back the fur coat they’d given for her cooperation, I realized the nazis’ names are Ingrid and Bergman – crazy, since a few years later Rossellini would fall for Ingrid Bergman. Bergman (stage actor Harry Feist) is effeminate and Ingrid (Giovanna Galletti, later in Last Tango in Paris) is butch, lounging on a sofa with Marina in a sinful opium haze, say the commentary, “underline how closely audiences of Rossellini’s time associated sexual deviancy with evildoing.”

Bergman:

Written with veteran screenwriter Sergio Amidei and young Federico Fellini, this wasn’t Rossellini’s first movie, just the earliest one that anyone pays attention to. Earlier he’d worked directly with Vittorio Mussolini, son of the country’s dictator, who describes Rossellini in the DVD extras (he lived through the 1990’s) as neither fascist nor anti-fascist at the time, just an energetic filmmaker.

The commentary by Peter Bondanella spends much of its time explaining why the movie shouldn’t count as “realism” at all, and does not make a sharp break with fascist cinema styles. But while downplaying the movie’s groundbreaking status, he also praises its story and technique endlessly:
“Much of the dramatic force of Open City resides in the lessons of humanity the main characters learn from each other. As Manfredi the Marxist revolutionary discovers, a priest is not so different from a worker, or even a partisan leader. In Open City we are asked to examine the common humanity that always transcends idiological or confessional labels.”

Don Pietro:

RR: “I’ve always advocated finding this ease of expression and demythologizing the camera and filmmaking, tackling it in a much simpler way, without worrying too much about perfect shots and images. The important thing was to get your point across.”

Hmm, neorealism was said to be a “reaction to the films of the Fascist era dominated by ‘white telephone’ films, which depicted ladies of leisure lounging on satin sofas, telephoning their lovers.” But isn’t that a precise description of Cocteau’s Human Voice, filmed by Rossellini four years later?

Francois Truffaut: “Rohmer once said that Rossellini’s genius lay in his lack of imagination, and it’s true. He didn’t like fabrication or artifice, or flashbacks or any kind of clever trick. He left behind the personal and specific to move ever toward the general. His first postwar film is Rome Open City, about a city. The next is Paisan – six stories about Italy from south to north. After that comes Germany Year Zero and then Europa 51 – at that point he needed an entire continent. … He was a very intelligent man. I’m not saying filmmaking is for idiots, but fiction requires a certain naivete that he didn’t have, so he worked with larger concepts.”

Buy from Amazon:
Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy DVD

To Be or Not to Be (1942, Ernst Lubitsch)

I guess this movie gets lots of credit for being a Hollywood anti-nazi resistance comedy released soon after U.S. entry into the war. Not a lot of funny Hitler movies going around back then, and reportedly it pissed off some audiences that German-born Lubitsch would try bringing his trademark lightness to such a heavy situation. But if anything, today it suffers from being not enough of a comedy. I couldn’t watch half the scenes without flashing back to The Great Dictator or Inglorious Basterds. Not that it has to go as far as Basterds, letting a couple of Jews machine-gun Hitler at close range as the whole theater explodes, but it came off closer in tone to 49th Parallel than Great Dictator.

One of the things that stood out about Lubitsch’s The Smiling Lieutenant a decade earlier was its pre-censors sexual frankness, and now this one gets away with having Carole Lombard (Twentieth Century star in her final role – she died in a plane crash) cheat on her husband with young bomber flyer Robert Stack (House of Bamboo, Written on the Wind – very early in his career) and get away with it.

Jack Benny (about to ditch the movies for a long TV career) leads an acting troupe along with wife Lombard and also Felix Bressart (Shop Around the Corner), Lionel Atwill (lots of Frankenstein movies) and Tom Dugan (bit player who averaged a movie per month in the 40’s). The play they’ve been rehearsing is censored by the nazis on the eve of its opening, so they go back to performing Hamlet, during which Robert Stack keeps leaving the audience at the start of Benny’s big soliloquy, brushing past everyone in the second row to meet Lombard backstage (why doesn’t he get an aisle seat?). Later at the height of the war, the theater troupe has joined the Polish resistance and Stack is fighting in the UK when a spy (Stanley Ridges of Canyon Passage, heh) with critical information about the resistance makes it into Poland and wants to meet with Lombard to inquire about the “code” he’s been given for her, “to be or not to be”. Stack flies into Poland and fills everyone in, so now the actors have to do their best impressions of nazi officials (Benny: “So they call me Concentration Camp Ehrhardt?”) to get back the secret papers.

The premise got away from me towards the end, when I thought Benny and his gang, having Hitler and a thousand nazis rounded up in a theater, aimed to do some damage. But of course, that’s Basterds talking again – I think they were just trying to get away from occupied Poland by stealing Hitler’s personal plane. Remade in the 80’s with Mel Brooks, Anne Bancroft and Christopher Lloyd for some weird reason.

A Night in Casablanca (1946, Archie Mayo)

Weirdly slow, clunky and unfunny Marx brothers movie. It kinda stars Harpo, or at least he’s onscreen more than the others. No Zeppo at all. I’d think that would be a good thing, but he’s replaced by generic heroic-type Charles Drake (No Name on the Bullet, It Came From Outer Space) with bland girlfriend Lois Collier (Cobra Woman, Flying Disc Man from Mars).

Managers at a certain hotel keep turning up dead, so Groucho is hired to run the place as a last resort. But a disguised nazi count (silly-toupeed, funny-voiced Sig Ruman of A Night at the Opera, Ninotchka, To Be or Not To Be) has stashed stolen treasure in the hotel and has been scheming to escape with the goods while our gallant hero tries to stop him. Sig’s vamp nazi chick Lisette Verea and his overeager soldier Fred Giermann (who has a long, painful swordfight scene with Harpo) try not-so-hard to thwart the Marxes instead of focusing on the do-gooder and leaving the harmless clowns alone. Groucho gets to use his funny walk more than his funny dialogue, and the movie slows to a crawl a couple times establishing that Chico can play piano and Harpo can play the harp.

The Brothers’ second-to-last film, and also the second-to-last by Archie Mayo (who replaced Fritz Lang on Moontide and adapted Sam Fuller on Confirm or Deny). Two writers plus (allegedly) an uncredited Frank Tashlin, and the Marxes went on tour before the filming “hoping to sharpen the script’s comedy” – so why does it feel like the jokes were so few and inadequate? It was meant to be a spoof of Casablanca, but they chickened out under legal scrutiny, so maybe all the best material got jettisoned in a last-minute rewrite. I don’t mean to be so hard on the movie – it was lightly amusing, a nice waste of 80 minutes – I was just expecting something more.

Month of 121 Shorts: The 80’s and 90’s

Musco (1997, Michael Smith & Joshua White)
A fake 1984 infomercial for a music-oriented lighting equipment company. I don’t get it. It was part of an art installation, and I don’t get those in general, maybe because I don’t live in New York.
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Flash Back (1985, Pascal Aubier)
Two-minute short – soldier is killed in combat, life flashes before his eyes represented by photos going back in time until to the earliest baby picture. Guess Pascal had to find an actor with lots of family photos for this.
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The Apparition (1985, Pascal Aubier)
A guy’s bathroom light makes the Virgin Mary appear in a church across town. Aubier ought to be at least as popular as Don Hertzfeldt.
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Un ballo in maschera (1987, Nicolas Roeg)
Things I like:
1. That the king is played by a woman (Theresa Russell) with a mustache
2. That the action takes place in an ellipsis (“…but”) between the opening and closing text (“King Zog Shot Back!”)

Nice piece, set to music by Giuseppe Verdi. First segment of the anthology film Aria, which I must watch the rest of when I’m not so tired (next segment put me to sleep in a couple minutes).
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Universal Hotel (1986, Peter Thompson)
“1980, I have a strange dream. Between the fortress and the cathedral is the universal hotel.” Slow, calm analysis of photos and reports about a nazi experiment where prisoners were frozen then revival was attempted using boiling water, microwaves and “animal heat.” “I make statements about the photographs which cannot be proven. I speak with uncertainty.” Increasingly intense, with narrated dreams illustrated with photography tricks, a murder-mystery without an ending. Last line: “they come while I’m asleep.” Scary, and I would not have watched this right now had I known nazis were involved, but now I’m glad I did.
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Universal Citizen (1987, Peter Thompson)
Now in Guatemala, Peter talks with a concentration camp survivor who told himself he would move to the tropics if he survived. He did, so he does, laying in a hammock, floating in the warm water, working on the sun roof of his house, listening to Armenian records and refusing to be filmed. Mayan ruins. This time the dream/nightmare scenes lack narration. Ends with a joke (and a shot from the beginning of the other film). Oh wait, no it ends with depression after the credits. I preferred the joke.
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Bunker of the Last Gunshots (1981, Jeunet et Caro)
There’s an insurrection inside the bunker. A timer count backwards, people have gas masks and eyegear and prosthetic limbs, there are shootings, eletroshock, cryogenics, there is complicated machinery, tubes and wires and hidden cameras. Possibly they are Germans, it is possibly post-apocalyptic, and the soldiers possibly go crazy and kill each other. I am not entirely sure of the politics, but it’s a neat little flick, definitely full of the clutter style of their later features.
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Opening Night of Close-Up (1996, Nanni Moretti)
That’s just what it’s about. The nervous cinephile (Moretti himself) who runs an Italian theater is opening Kiarostami’s Close-Up and wants everything to be just right.
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World of Glory (1991, Roy Andersson)
“This is my brother. My little brother. I suppose he is my only true friend, so to speak. [both look away uncomfortably]” I just checked and yeah, Roy Andersson is the acclaimed deadpan comedic filmmaker who made Songs from the Second Floor and You, The Living. I’d believe it, and be almost excited to see those two after viewing this short, a guy grimly introducing us to his sad life, with he and others looking slowly into the camera as if we’re to blame for all this – except why did it start with a mini-reenactment of the holocaust? The whole rest of the movie I’m wondering that… he won’t let go of the “blood of christ” wine pot at mass and it’s supposed to be a funny scene but I’m thinking “the holocaust?!?”
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Reverse Shot explains:

World of Glory locates a society — ostensibly the director’s native Sweden, but easy interchangeable with any modern European country — so paralyzed by ennui, anxiety, and desperation that its inhabitants are apparitions. The main character is a thin, pasty man who takes us on a guided tour of his life — his loveless marriage, his stultifying job, his pathetic day-to-day activities. It was not until the second time I saw the film that I realized that this character had been present in the first shot: dead center of the frame, turning away from the proceedings every so often to fix us with his gaze. His meek, self-effacing misery in the later scenes thus comes into sharper relief: a person who does not act to avert tragedy endures beneath its weight.

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Je vous salue, Sarajevo (1993, Jean-Luc Godard)
“Culture is the rule, and art is the exception. … The rule is to want the death of the exception, so the rule for Cultural Europe is to organize the death of the art of living, which still flourishes.” This two-minute piece is a montage made from a single photograph, with voiceover. Directly to the point, I like it better than almost all of Histoire(s) du cinema.
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Origins of the 21st Century (2000, Jean-Luc Godard)
A bummer of a film, montaging footage from news videos and feature films (The Shining, The Nutty Professor, Le Plaisir) over quiet music with the occasional commentary or block lettering, war and death, pain and happiness and a few plays-on-words.
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If 6 was 9 (1995, Eija-Liisa Ahtila)
Sex, split-screens and supermarkets. More people looking into the camera confessionally, but all about sex this time, not too similar to Today.
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Can’t figure what a full hour-long Ahtila film would be like, but she’s made two of them so I’ll find out eventually.
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Zig-Zag (1980, Raul Ruiz)
Ruiz had adapted Kafka’s Penal Colony ten years earlier so surely he knows he’s making another Kafkaesque film here. A man named H. “realizes he is the victim of the worst type of nightmare: a didactic nightmare” when, late for an appointment, he finds himself part of a global board game at the mercy of pairs of dice. The game keeps changing scale, zooming out, so H. has to travel further distances more quickly – from walking to taxi to train to plane. Rosenbaum (who says it’s Borgesian not Kafkaesque) says it was made to promote a map exhibition in Paris, which to me just makes it more strange than if it was promoting nothing at all. “The history of cartography [is] the business of labyrinth destruction.”
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Either H. or the mysterious gamer was played by Pascal Bonitzer, cowriter of some of Rivette’s best films. “We now live in the pure instantaneous future.”
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