Friday 29 December 2023

The Bitter Tears Of Petra Von Kant [1972]

 The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant established a radical and decisive shift in Fassbinder’s cinematic form and grammar – from austere, low-budget, experimental films to the kind of flamboyantly conceived, lusciously mounted and heavily stylized melodramas that he’s associated with. During an eight-month hiatus that he took from filmmaking after making a staggering 10 films between 1969 and 1972, he devoured Douglas Sirk’s movies and even met the then retired filmmaker at his residence in Switzerland, which catalysed this transition. It also searingly mirrored his left-wing politics and homosexuality, alongside an intensely auto-fictional evocation of his own relationships with actor Günther Kaufmann and his assistant Peer Raben. The resultant work, consequently, combined formal exactitude, sensational stylistic flourishes and fervid passions with sharp political subtexts – on power, privilege and class – and stirring self-expression, thus making this a ravishing, complex and turbulent accomplishment. Adapted from a play written by RWF himself, it manifested the theatre through its structure – viz. four acts and an epilogue – and by rigorously setting it entirely within the confines of a single room, which interlaced both artifice and claustrophobia into the emotional upheavals demonstrated by its stunning all-female cast. The film’s three central characters were the eponymous heroine (Margit Carstensen), a haughty and famous fashion designer recovering from yet another marital break-down; a strikingly captivating, nubile and icy ingenue (Hanna Schygulla) who the older woman falls crazily in love with; and Petra’s silent and suffering assistant (Irm Hermann). This ferocious chamber drama, that provoked controversy upon its release, was further underpinned by its gorgeous cinematography by Michael Ballhaus, resplendent ensembles, idiosyncratic props, campy dialogues, evocative use of music, and a giant print of Poussin's Midas and Bacchus.

Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Genre: Drama/Psychological Drama/Romantic Drama

Language: German

Country: Germany

Wednesday 27 December 2023

Dear Diary (Caro Diario) [1993]

 Nanni Moretti’s delightful, drifting and self-deprecating rendition of his ironic and neurotic protagonist – part actual self, part alter-ego, part satiric depiction – in his wry, idiosyncratic and infectious gem Caro Diario, is bound to remind one of the celebrated self-representations by the likes of Buster Keaton, Jacques Tati, Woody Allen and João César Monteiro; yet, for all the supposed similarities – even if these were parallels to be proud of – this was a distinctively and uniquely Moretti creation. The loosely structured triptych, filled with deadpan sketches, worked along multiple overlapping forms – an intimate and self-reflective diary film; a disarmingly mordant and subversive satire on vacuous consumerism, market forces and politics (no wonder, there was a stirring nod to Pasolini’s murder); a rich self-referential examination; a freewheeling city symphony and road film; and quirky notes on cinema, pop-culture, friendship and mortality. The 1st chapter, titled “On My Vespa”, sees an impish Moretti riding through the different quarters of Rome on the iconic scooter, observing diverse architectures, quipping on gentrification, making incongruous conversations, lambasting shallow movie trends, and expressing a goofy love for Flashdance. In the 2nd chapter, titled “Islands”, a deadpan Moretti and an austere intellectual friend – who deplores television, only to become obsessed with American soap opera – decide to hop from one oddball island to another, including Rossellini’s Stromboli, in the futile hope of working on their art bereft of urban distractions. The final chapter, titled “Doctors”, sees a flummoxed Moretti visiting a series of conventional and alternative “doctors” trying to get an irrepressible itchiness cured, only to learn – fortunately, before it was too late – that he’s become inflicted with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and the chemotherapy treatments that he must then endure.

Director: Nanni Moretti

Genre: Comedy/Black Comedy/Social Satire/Film a Clef/Anthology Movie

Language: Italian

Country: Italy

Friday 22 December 2023

A Wedding Suit [1976]

 Can social observations be piquant and compassionate in equal measures? Can there be immersive storytelling with the frailest of plots? Can something carry heft despite being outwardly slight? Abbas Kiarostami’s gently ironic third film A Wedding Suit – at 3 minutes shy of an hour, it’s either feature-length or not depending on whose definition one subscribes to – provided a fascinating early peek into the Iranian maestro’s extraordinary ability to turn a seemingly commonplace scenario into something that’s beguiling and singular. It also demonstrated his love for training his lens on kids and adolescents, which he’d began with his debut feature itself and would pursue almost exclusive for around 16 years via both fictions and documentaries. Its three pint-sized protagonists are teenage working-class boys who, while being employed in low-wage employments at an age where they ideally ought to be in the school, pursue a common fleeting dream of transitioning into “respectable” men. Ali, with his impassive demeanour, works as an assistant to a veteran tailor, and he continuously crosses paths with the talkative Hossein, with whom he’s relatively closer, and the roguish livewire Mamad, who both kids view with considerable suspicion, as they all work in the same trilevel complex. When Ali’s employer takes the order of making a suit for a well-off boy of similar age, both Hossain and Mamad vie for it in order to wear this fancy dress for one evening – something they couldn’t ever afford otherwise, thus representing an impossible dream for them – before it’s handed over. Kiarostami, through this simple premise, crafted a deadpan, satirical and tragicomic examination of class boundaries, along with a poetic slice-of-life portrayal of adolescence, wishful longing and life in Tehran.

Director: Abbas Kiarostami

Genre: Comedy/Social Satire/Slice of Life

Language: Persian

Country: Iran

Tuesday 19 December 2023

Monsieur Klein [1976]

 Monsieur Klein, Joseph Losey’s frighteningly brilliant pièce de résistance, provided – as claustrophobic political thriller, darkly surreal fable and bleak historical document – a ferocious examination of French culpability during the Nazi Occupation. It accomplished that through spare and haunting interpretation of Kafka’s prophetic masterpiece The Trial, wherein its eponymous protagonist – a smug, amoral, apolitical, apathetic and wealthy art-dealer who cynically profits from people’s misfortunes, and played with chilling aplomb by Alain Delon – becomes a victim himself on account of mistaken identity; and, spurred as much by his self-destructive obsession as the climate of paranoia and persecution, he’s eventually crushed by the monstrous tyranny of the Nazi bureaucratic apparatus. Losey had himself faced ugly witch-hunts due to his fearless left-wing politics, which’d forced him into exile, and his distressing personal experiences imbued the film with deeper meanings. Two intensely disturbing scenes set the context – pseudo-medical assessment of a middle-aged woman’s Semitic physical features; and Klein’s exploitation of a Jewish man’s desperation by purchasing a priceless artwork at a pittance – which powerfully foreshadowed the subsequent proceedings. The core plot is set in motion when a Jewish newspaper gets delivered to his doorstep. He realizes that there’s another person with the same name – albeit, a Jew, and potentially member of the Resistance too, who remains an enigma till the end – and things go downhill from there with fatalist certainty. The film – magnificently photographed in washed visuals which complemented its existential dread, and also starring Jeanne Moreau in an arresting support role and Juliet Berto in a cameo – culminated with the harrowing Vel' d'Hiv' Roundup in 1942 during which over 13,000 Parisian Jews were deported by cattle cars to Auschwitz for their mass murder.

Director: Joseph Losey

Genre: Drama/Political Thriller/Existential Thriller/Psychological Drama/Mystery

Language: French

Country: France

Wednesday 13 December 2023

The Bride Wore Black [1968]

 While Truffaut loved making crime films as an expression of his love for classic noirs – albeit permeated with poetic sensibility that was distinctively French – The Bride Wore Black was arguably his most Hitchcockian work, and therefore his most direct ode to the iconic filmmaker who he deeply admired. Adapted from the fatalist roman noir of the same name by Cornell Woolrich, it was also a homage to the then-dying crime writer whose books he loved. This pulpy tale of a bride who exacts murderous revenge on the five people responsible for making her a widow on the day of her marriage, in turn, served as a direct reference to the premise, structure and devices of Tarantino’s absurdly entertaining Kill Bill. Though it arguably finds place as second-tier Truffaut – as much on account of the silly backstory and gaping plot holes, as for the differences that he had while shooting with his celebrated DOP Raoul Coutard, with whom he’d worked on three films in the past, that potentially impacted his direction – it nevertheless exuded captivating flavours, not least on account of its magnetic leading lady Jeanne Moreau, in her second collaboration with him. She was arresting as an icy-cold femme fatale who seductress and eliminates her victims in manners that were simultaneously outrageous and deadpan – pushing a lascivious ladies’ man (Claude Rich) off the balcony; poisoning a lonely middle-aged bachelor (Michel Bouquet); leading a cocky politician (Daniel Boulanger) to suffocation; piercing a smitten painter with an arrow while luridly posing for her; and getting herself arrested to finish off a corrupt scoundrel. Coutard’s dazzling cinematography – with its sunny, colourful visuals – imbued the film with a cool, modernist and detached flavour.

Director: Francois Truffaut

Genre: Thriller/Crime Thriller/Post-Noir

Language: French

Country: France

Saturday 9 December 2023

Shakespeare Wallah [1965]

Shakespeare Wallah – the sophomore Merchant-Ivory collaboration that earned them international fame – was a rare example of exceptional films focused on travelling performers, alongside the likes of La Strada, Floating Weeds, The Travelling Players, The Puppetmaster, Arekti Premer Galpo, etc. It was loosely based on English thespian Geoffrey Kendel’s diaries, who’d toured throughout India in the 1940s and 50s – along with his wife Laura Liddell, and daughters Jennifer and Felicity – with their travelling theatre troupe “Shakespeareana”. In a fascinating blurring of lines between memoir and fiction, it starred Geoffrey and Laura themselves as ageing Shakespearean artists Tony and Carla Buckingham, and Felicity as their teenaged daughter Lizzie, who, as “The Buckingham Players”, criss-cross through post-Colonial India staging the Bard’s plays – from private performances for wealthy royals (Utpal Dutt) and at boarding schools, to public shows for paying audiences. The rapidly changing social climate and landscape of the newly independent country – intent on leaving behind the shadows of British Raj – has meant a sharp decline in the demand for classical English theatre and therefore the Buckinghams’ finances, further exacerbated by the swing towards popular cinema. While the parents are alternately cynical, nostalgic and resigned, an affecting romance brews between the naïve ingénue Lizzie, and a wealthy playboy (Shashi Kapoor, who was married to Jennifer Kendal), albeit complicated by a fiercely jealous Bollywood star (Madhur Jaffrey). This ravishingly beautiful, bittersweet and evocative representation of an era fading out in the mists of time – embodied by brilliant, nomadic artists converting into fossils – was made particularly memorable by a magnificent and rapturous soundtrack by Satyajit Ray, gorgeous cinematography in hypnotic B/W by Subrata Mitra, and a sensitive script by Merchant-Ivory regular Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.

Director: James Ivory

Genre: Drama/Romantic Drama/Period Film/Film a Clef/Road Movie

Language: English

Country: USA

Wednesday 6 December 2023

Story of Women [1988]

 Story of Women, the 2nd of 7 collaborations between Claude Chabrol and Isabelle Huppert, comprised of a radically non-conformist anti-heroine – a historical figure whose crimes are interpreted as an attack on patriarchal norms and bourgeois morality, thus setting her against the society – that immediately reminds one of their stunningly scorching first association from exactly a decade back, Violette Noziere. It was also the French filmmaker’s most frontal assault on the hypocrisy and criminality of Vichy France – when the puppet Nazi satellite that was established during the German Occupation had to, among other things, execute a certain number of people to appease their masters – through this true story of the last women to be guillotined in this country. Marie Latour (Huppert), who faced this abominable punishment, was a working-class woman with two kids who, during her husband’s extended absence on account of being a slave labourer in Germany, embraces two rather murky vocations as means to escape from her squalid existence. She starts performing clandestine abortions – that wasn’t just illegal, but was considered then a grave crime against fascist morality – and also starts renting out rooms for her prostitute friend. Upon succeeding in improving her lifestyle, she continues pursuing these even after the return of her husband Paul (François Cluzet). Ironically, her arrest is precipitated not due to her infractions, rather by her cuckolded husband’s bruised ego at her brash refusal to play the traditional role of a wife. Chabrol presented a cutting commentary on patriarchy, hypocrisy, collusion and culpability of the Vichy government; and, buoyed by Huppert’s riveting turn, Marie evolved into a fierce, edgy and complex person who’s demonized for never trying or wanting to be a saint.

Director: Claude Chabrol

Genre: Drama/Historical Drama/Feminist Cinema/Docufiction

Language: French

Country: France

Friday 1 December 2023

L'Enfer (Hell) [1994]

 Henri-Georges Clouzot – best remembered for his two electrifying thrillers The Wages of Fear and Les Diaboliques – had written the screenplay for L’Enfer and began its shooting in 1964, but had to leave it unfinished on account of production woes. Three decades later Claude Chabrol – one of the most caustic and brilliant examiners of middle-class artifice, hypocrisy and relationships – resurrected this unfinished project and adapted Clouzot’s script into a deliriously dark, delicious and demented examination of a marriage that turns not just toxic, but diabolical too, on account of extreme jealousy, unhealthy obsessions, crippling paranoia and pathological insanity. The film began in a mood of sunny cheerfulness, but progressively yet decidedly transformed into a hellish atmosphere – buoyed by elements that were alternatively saucy, parodic, unsettling and disorienting – which made it both a chilling depiction of madness and a scathing commentary on the conformist images of bourgeois domesticity. The jaunty opening sequences breezily capture the peppy romance and bucolic marriage of Paul (François Cluzet), a boutique hotelier in a provincial town, and Nelly (Emmanuelle Béart) who he’s fallen head over heels for. Things, however, start spiralling downwards when Paul initially suspects his sultry and attractive wife is having an extra-marital affair with a virile young worker, and starts surreptitiously stalking her. Before long, the intensely cuckolded and insecure man starts imagining that she’s sleeping around with every man and obsessing about her supposedly insatiable desires. There’s no going back from here, as he – alternating between self-pity, delusion and violence – propels their marriage into a raging inferno and a chilling climax. Interestingly, Nelly’s supposed infidelity is never clarified, while the nightmarish finale left things unsettlingly ambiguous in this work of surprising ferocity.

Director: Claude Chabrol

Genre: Thriller/Black Comedy/Marital Thriller/Romantic Thriller

Language: French

Country: France