“Beer has its own way of sorting things out.”

Julian Barratt (Mighty Boosh’s Howard Moon) seeks Whitehead, is looking for a field, then abruptly dies. Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith, a lead in The League of Gentlemen series) will be our movie’s lead coward, joining with some companions in a field in the midst of a filthy war in search of his dead master’s nemesis O’Neil, who stole some papers I guess.

Companions: hood-wearing Friend (that’s his name, took me all movie to figure it out) played by Richard Glover (minor role in Sightseers) with a great low voice, wide-hatted Cutler (Ryan Pope of TV’s Ideal), Jacob (Peter Ferdinando of serial killer movie Tony). They finally find O’Neil (Michael Smiley, the lead guy’s co-hitman in Kill List) at the end of a long rope (?) and a struggle ensues.

The point is less the war, the companions, the stolen papers and struggle than the weird ride. There’s a game of tug-o-war vs. mystical forces, poop humor, many mushrooms are consumed, Whitehead fasts then vomits runestones and the dead don’t stay dead. Maybe it’s Jodorowsky-influenced, seeming mythical without making any proper sense.

Set during the English Civil War, 1650ish, which reportedly caused some trouble coming up with period-appropriate words. The dialogue is great when you can make it out, which we couldn’t on my dad’s surround system (was fine in headphones). Writer Amy Jump and cinematographer Laurie Rose also worked on the other two.

An epic trilogy, obviously conceived as a single story – it would be foolish to watch just one. It might, in fact, be foolish to watch all three. A weighty, picturesque drama with restrained emotions, occasional action, and side characters I kept losing track of, adding up to a decent story about a great fighter learning to be a great person.

1600 AD: Toshiro Mifune (in his follow-up to Seven Samurai) is violent, spontaneous Takezo, whose weak-willed friend Matahachi (Rentaro Mikuni, lead of the first segment in Kwaidan, son in chains of Profound Desire of the Gods) joins him in going to war, leaving behind Matahachi’s mom and his fiancee Otsu (Kaoru Yachigusa, who starred in Madame Butterfly between sequels). Their side is wiped out, and the two misfit warriors wash up with a mother and daughter, where they recover from battle wounds amidst sexual tension cued by rape attempts.

wide-eyed Matahachi and grim Takezo at war:

Takezo up a tree:

Mother and daughter survive by stripping dead samurai and selling their equipment – just like in Onibaba. Takezo flees after defeating the bandit that torments the women, then shrugging off the mom when she throws herself at him. She changes the story: “He attempted to assault me. He’s a savage.” Matahachi marries the mom, while his ex, Otsu, joins the search for Takezo, who is repeatedly captured by a smiling priest, who finally locks T. up in an attic full of books. T. emerges years later, calmer and wiser, renamed Musashi Miyamoto, tells Otsu to wait, and wanders off.

Akemi, Matahachi and Oko:

Otsu left behind:

Part two opens with a duel, MM telling a young kid called Jotaro to leave the arena. But of course he doesn’t, and tags along behind our hero after he kills the chainfighting Old Baiken. Akemi (Mariko Okada, married to director Yoshishige Yoshida, also star of some Ozu films), the girl whose mom married Matahachi is now darkly obsessed with MM, also pops up to torment Otsu, seems to be everywhere. Most of the movie concerns MM challenging the master of a fighting school, who will not fight him honorably so MM kicks the asses of some hundred students instead. By the end, the teacher mans up and meets MM, who does not kill him, after remembering how pissed everyone was when he killed the chainfighter.

MM vs. the chainfighter:

MM controlling his rage at the second duel:

Meanwhile some dickish birdslaying swordsman, supposed to remind us of young MM, wants to duel MM. And Otsu keeps pining after MM, who insists that he needs to keep training. I like the brief moments of animation (a lightning strike, cartoon birds flying across a painted sky) and the catchy theme music.


Part 3: predictably, Akemi has met the birdslayer. MM is still an undefeatable warrior, but now believes it’s best to avoid conflict. He postpones the birdslayer’s duel challenge and lives in a farming town with the kid and ever-suffering Otsu. The town is under siege by bandits (what peaceful small town in ancient Japan was not under siege by bandits?), and Akemi makes a deal with them. The siege goes wrong – MM kills many bandits and they kill Akemi shortly after she fights Otsu with an axe.

Bird guy:

MM and his little follower:

MM finally decides to give up his sword and marry Otsu, but first has to kill the birdslayer, which he does with a wooden sword, keeping the sun behind himself so the other man won’t notice.

Polite, ornate historical movie, shot 4:3 for television in grand color. I had to look this up: XIV was two Louises before the Louis who married Marie Antoinette then got killed in 1793 by the French Revolution. All these Louises had long reigns, so the movie takes place a good century before the Revolution.

This Louis seems a pudgy weakling, more interested in partying and women than in ruling the country, until his main advisor Cardinal Mazarin dies. From then on, the king decides to take charge, proclaims that all policy must be personally approved by him, and arrests the advisor who had schemed to take control after the cardinal’s death.

At the end, the King moves the palace to Versailles, and gets all the nobles to follow him there, consolidating all power around himself.

dying cardinal mazarin:

I wonder if there were commercial breaks when this first aired – it has the abrupt fade-outs at the end of scenes that usually signal that an ad is coming. J. Hoberman says Rossellini’s late TV works “have an intimacy well-suited to the small screen,” but I watched this movie and all his others on my laptop screen, so I’ve long ago lost the difference between theatrical and television. It didn’t seem any more intimate than the Ingrid Bergman films.

Some truth from Tag: “‘You always have to try to emphasize the emotion,’ said Rossellini. Despite the strange rumor in film textbooks that Rossellini siezes reality in the raw, in fact, he carefully crafts his display.”

Louis in his fancypants:

It has a theatrical quality, with people standing and stuffily proclaiming things to others who ought to know already. You’ve gotta mix exposition with your realism if you want audiences to understand your history-lesson TV-movie. The king seems a stiff actor at first, but I started to like him. He never smiles, and the closest he ever gets to a look of glorious kingly determination is a sort of sad droop with shades of anger. It’s quite a good movie but I guess I don’t understand what makes this different from other historical fiction, how Rossellini thought of his TV work as an educational revolution, or how this became an Anthology Film Archives staple.

Louis’s mom is kind of mean to him:

Renzo: “He had a utopian vision: to save the world through television. His utopian vision was that television could free mankind from ignorance, and that freeing mankind from ignorance would also eliminate hunger and unemployment and all other evils. He considered ignorance the source of all the world’s ills. He thought that his function as a mature director was to achieve this. Hence the idea of making films based on history as the font of knowledge, and the idea of describing the world through television.” Tag says R.R. announced in 1962 that cinema is dead and made a doc on the history of iron, which flopped, causing him to be quite depressed. A couple years later, Louis XIV was chosen to close the Venice Film Festival, and a third of the French population watched it on TV. Tag says you can learn more about the life of Rossellini’s historical subjects from a desk encyclopedia than from watching the films, so the films are more for conveying the emotions of the events. “Rossellini’s heroes are the loonies who turn the most damn-fool ideas into reality. … heroes whose inner fire takes us with them into our new reality. … but in Louis’s case, as often in history, the big effort is to subjugate people rather than illuminate them, to create slaves who think they’re free.”

scheming Fouquet:

The guy playing Louis was an office clerk and amateur play director, nervous on camera, reading most of his lines off a blackboard. Colbert, mustachioed advisor to the king, is Raymond Jourdan of Renoir’s The Elusive Corporal. But mostly they’re first-time or small-time actors. Script adapted by Jean Gruault, who worked with Rivette, Truffaut and Resnais.

Tag calls it “the story of a man who was afraid and so creates a new reality where he’ll control everyone … it’s a horror film.”

A classy (but under-90-minute) bio-pic, which gratefully provides a smiling Charles Laughton plenty of time for speechifying. The story goes that Rembrandt started painting a commissioned portrait of some rich officers, but the painting turned dark after his wife Saskia died of illness, hence “The Night Watch.” Much criticism follows, Rem falls in with housekeeper Geertje and goes through dark times, loses all his possessions, then ten years later dumps her for newer, younger housekeeper Hendrickje. Together they creatively avoid Rem’s debts by saying he has no personal wealth and works for a dealership run by Hendrickje and Rem’s son Titus, thus all paintings belong to the dealer and can be sold. Hen eventually dies just like Rem’s first wife, and Rem lives out his days in poverty, begging on the street for money to buy paints but, being Charles Laughton, still looks awfully pleased with himself.

Roger Livesey, recognizable by his distinctive voice, gets a prime role as a beggar whom Rem wants to paint as a faded old king. Laughton, the year after Ruggles of Red Gap, and three after winning the oscar for Korda’s The Private Life of Henry VIII plays opposite stage actress Gertrude Lawrence (Geertje) and Elsa Lanchester (Hendrickje), who was the Bride of Frankenstein just the previous year.

Wikipedia, the source of all truths, says Night Watch was never criticized, that Rembrandt was paid in full and the subjects were pleased, but confirms the story of the art dealership owned by Rembrandt’s son and girlfriend.

It’s a mid-career work by Korda, who was turning to production over direction – this was one of the last he’d direct himself – with help from writer Carl Zuckmayer (The Blue Angel), cinematographer Georges Périnal (some René Clair films, Blood of a Poet, Colonel Blimp) and art director Vincent Korda (who’d work with Ernst Lubitsch, Carol Reed and David Lean).

Filmed like a stage play with tableau shots and intricate lighting, and performed to the rafters, with driving music, a thousand pages of dialogue and a million times more profanity than the Korda movie.

Rembrandt is portrayed by a playful Martin Freeman. Saskia is alive until halfway through the movie, and Geertje and Hendrickje show up too, perverse and unrecognizable from the other movie (Geertje in particular is less forbidding, almost jolly in this one). Respectively, PG cast Eva Birthistle (Ae Fond Kiss, Breakfast on Pluto), Jodhi May (House of Mirth) and Emily Holmes (Snakes on a Plane) as Rem’s women.

Possibly there’s an angel on the roof, or perhaps it’s just Bob Kemp’s daughter. Maybe her name is Marieke. I get that there’s a huge conspiracy, that everyone in the movie knows about some sordid goings-on, that the cover-ups are ineffective and that Rembrandt is said to be exposing the misdeeds within details in his painting (definite shades of The Draughtsman’s Contract), but I have a hard time following all the specifics. There’s a flood of explanation at the end: one man is burning down houses for insurance, one runs an orphanage as a child brothel, one is manipulating tobacco prices, and one shot Hasselburg. The picture is usually dark around the edges, almost definitely in sympathy with The Night Watch, but I didn’t get any other art or history or story references because I am not cultured enough to appreciate Greenaway. It’s a common complaint, but I don’t hold it against P.G. – that he can make such a talky yet visually interesting film which actually makes me want to learn more about Rembrandt and 1600’s Dutch society is good enough.

Astree loves Celadon and vice versa, with the kind of suicide-pact love that mainly exists among 17-year-olds in tragi-romantic plays. His parents don’t approve so the young lovers make a public show of dating other people… but Astree believes the show, feels betrayed and tells Celadon to piss off, so he goes and drowns himself in the river. Not quite dead, he’s rescued by nymph Galathée and her gang. Gal wants hunky Cel for herself but he escapes and hides away in the forest, eating berries, refusing to approach his beloved because, after all, she ordered him away. Meanwhile, Astree and Cel’s brother alternate (“he must be dead!” “he must be alive!”).

I guess I see the Rohmer moral theme at work here. Cel loves his girl so he must remain faithful to her and do as she says, staying away even if she doesn’t know he’s alive. But as Jimmy said, breaking into a giggling fit after hearing Celadon echo his simple emotions for the thousandth time, “he’s SO dumb!” It’s hard to disagree… they are all so dumb, and the movie is so straightforward and simple that it gets frustrating. Some nice imagery though, I thought (Katy said it looked made-for-public-television). Best not to get into the ending, in which Celadon pretends (not convincingly) to be a girl in order to get closer to his beloved.

Astree is Stephanie Crayencour and Celadon is Andy Gillet, neither of whom have shown up elsewhere yet. Jocelyn Quivrin who played Celadon’s brother died in a car crash two months ago. Nominated for the golden lion in Venice along with six movies I’ve loved (and also Sukiyaki Western Django) but they all lost to Lust, Caution, which I thought didn’t get good reviews.

M.J. Anderson:

Adapting Honoré d’Urfé’s novel of 5th century Gaul life, The Romance of Astree and Celadon claims to reproduce less the period depicted than its 17th century readers’ imagination of the earlier period. Commensurate with this goal, the director features canvases painted in the seventeenth century, a castle built well after the novel’s setting and importantly a grafting of the Christian faith onto the Druid-themed source material.

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.

People are talking about Ken Russell these days because of a DVD release of his early biographical documentaries, so when I was frustrated at the video store (no Stuart Gordon! no Wizard of Gore!) I rented this on a whim. Oh boy am I glad I did. Don’t know what the modern critical consensus is (it’s on the They Shoot Pictures list and in D. Ehrenstein’s top ten, so probably pretty good) but to me, this is a masterpiece. Got to see it again, preferably in higher quality than this blurred DVD copy could provide.
UPDATE 2016: Watched this on 35mm, front row at the Alamo – a divine experience.

Vanessa Redgrave has spinal problems:

It’s about the same 1600’s nun-mania incident in France that Mother Joan of the Angels covered very capably and artistically a decade earlier, but this one opens up the story, bringing in King Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu (who together strengthened the monarchy and centralized power in France), enlarging the town and creating amused mobs and public executions, and focusing mainly on a priest outside the convent, Urbain Grandier (played by Oliver Reed, his favorite role), who seems corrupt at first but becomes the most noble character in the movie towards the end.

Grandier with one of his pre-marriage young conquests:

The nuns (led by a hysterical Vanessa Redgrave of Blow-Up and Camelot) are shown to be repressed young bundles of hormones, stuck in the convent by circumstance and not by choice, who finally explode at the sight of Grandier glimpsed through their barred windows. The nuns request a father confessor but instead of Grandier they get stern, sexually ambiguous Mignon (Murray Melvin, who had a good year in ’75 with Lisztomania and Barry Lyndon) who calls in professional witch-hunter Father Barre (Michael Gothard of Lifeforce, The Three Musketeers) to perform an embarrassing public exorcism. Meanwhile, Grandier has knocked up one girl and made a big deal of defending the city from the whims of central government, meets Madeleine (Gemma Jones, lately playing everyone’s mum in big-budget films) and dedicates himself to her in a private wedding ceremony. Richelieu and the fey King (hilariously shown in his garden shooting protestants dressed as birds) use the nun-mania to their political advantage, taking down Grandier, having him tortured and killed by the enthusuastic Father Barre. Grandier out of the way, the city’s protective walls are destroyed. Final awesome shot is of U.G.’s devastated wife walking out of town, surrounded by ruins of the wall and the bodies of protestants tied to wagon wheels atop unreasonably high poles.


Derek Jarman, right at the start of his career, did the glorious sets and production design, and David Watkin (lots of Richard Lester movies, Out of Africa) was cinematographer. Two music people, one did period music and one did the discordant jazz that played over darker scenes. Russell wrote the screenplay based on a play and an Aldous Huxley novel. Pretty closely based on fact, if the Wikipedia article on Urbain Grandier is accurate (wow, it even has a graphic of U.G.’s “confession” co-signed by Satan himself).

As far as religious mania goes, I’ve lately seen Spanish Inquisition movies (Pit and the Pendulum, Goya’s Ghosts) a Boston Witch-hunt referencing movie (Ghosthouse) and other movies about religious conflict (Guelwaar, The Milky Way), and this tops ’em all. Of course, as a non-religious person I’m biased towards the extreme corrupt-church-hatin’, and as a guy I’m biased towards all the female nudity, but aside from all that, this is a scorching, beautiful, excellent movie.

a gem from Wikipedia:
“British film critic Alexander Walker described the film as ‘monstrously indecent’ in a television confrontation with Russell, leading the director to hit him with a rolled up copy of the Evening Standard, the newspaper for which Walker worked.”

King and Cardinal during the bird-shooting scene:

Oliver Reed:

You would think from the critics’ hostility that Ken Russell had tried to pull off some obscene hoax. On the contrary, the film is, I think, an utterly serious attempt to understand the nature of religious and political persecution. It is not in any way exaggerated. If anything, the horrors perpetrated in Loudun in the 17th century were worse than Russell has chosen to show . . . the character of the priest was a marvelous one to act. Ken Russell’s brother-in-law is an historian and he helped me research Grandier’s life, with particular reference to his thesis in celibacy. The people of Loudun loved him. He walked among the plague victims and comforted them. I started to play him as a priest and realized that he was a politician.

[on criticism of The Devils] It was very disturbing to make. I still haven’t got over it… Where do you draw the line? This is the way it happened – those nuns were used for political ends, toted round France as a side show for a year. Do you ignore the actual historical accuracy and the fact that the Church, the politicians and the aristocracy were corrupt? I get so angry with the opinion makers who class it with the sex films. If we ignore history because it was unpleasant we’re going to end up with nothing but nature films.

Mignon, belatedly convinced of Grandier’s innocence, with the zealous Barre:

D. Ehrlich: “Jarman’s neo-futurist design still gives the madness a divine scale. Any movie that ends with someone furiously masturbating as an expression of their own eternal misery is fine by me.”