Category Archives: Film Reviews

Carl Theodor Dreyer’s GERTRUD

I wrote the following review of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Gertrud for this week’s Cine-File Chicago list.

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Carl Theodor Dreyer’s GERTRUD (Danish)
Available to rent through the Criterion Collection here

Carl Dreyer, one of the greatest of all film directors, excelled at making polemical movies about love, faith and female martyrdom, the potent mixture of which reaches its zenith in GERTRUD, his sublime final work. This ascetic film’s singular character, which gives the impression of being distinctly Dreyerian while simultaneously striking out in a bold new direction for the 75-year-old auteur, is deceptively theatrical: It’s an adaptation of a play of the same title from 1906 by Swedish writer Hjalmar Söderberg that features pageant-like proscenium framing (where characters frequently speak to one another while facing the camera but not each other) and is reminiscent of both Henrik Ibsen (in its depiction of a protoypical feminist heroine) as well as August Strindberg (presenting the eternal conflict between men and women). But there are few films as truly and wonderfully cinematic as GERTRUD, wherein Dreyer’s unique aesthetic combination of stillness, slowness and “whiteness” (to borrow an adjective from Francois Truffaut) is perfectly suited to capturing the title character’s near-religious view of romantic love as an uncompromising ideal. When the film begins, Gertrud Kanning (Nina Pens Rode) is a retired opera singer in her mid-30s unhappily married to a wealthy lawyer and politician (Bendt Rothe). Among the men aggressively pursuing her are her ex-lover, a middle-aged poet celebrated for his love poetry (Ebbe Rode), and a potential future lover, a callow young piano prodigy (Baard Owe); but none of these three men love her as much as she requires and so she chooses to live alone – without regrets. Unforgettable for its use of long takes, the function of which, in Dreyer’s own words, is “a penetration to my actors’ profound thoughts through their most subtle expressions,” and Rode’s luminous lead performance. (1964, 116 min) MGS


Dan Sallitt’s FOURTEEN

I wrote the following review of Dan Sallitt’s Fourteen for this week’s Cine-File Chicago list.

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Dan Sallitt’s FOURTEEN (American)
Available to rent through the Music Box Theatre here

Have you ever felt a sense of responsibility to a friend in the present because of feelings of indebtedness you may have had to that person in the past? Have you ever anguished over whether to provide emotional or material support to someone you once cared about because you thought they might no longer deserve it? Does the process of growing up with someone necessarily entail growing apart? These are just some of the ethical questions you might find yourself contemplating while watching Dan Sallitt’s remarkable new movie FOURTEEN, which features two of the best performances I expect to see all year: Tallie Medel plays Mara, a 20-something woman living in Brooklyn who goes from being a preschool teacher’s aid to a full-time teacher while simultaneously navigating the complicated world of adult dating; and Norma Kuhling plays Mara’s childhood friend Jo, an emotionally unstable social worker who has difficulty keeping any one job, boyfriend or fixed place of residence for very long. The chemistry between these actresses is phenomenal: Through subtle body language, pointed glances and rat-a-tat-tat line readings (in which they frequently seem to be collaborating over the heads of whoever else may be in the room with them), Medel and Kuhling always manage to suggest a rich and complex history between their characters. Sallitt, in his fifth and best feature to date, deserves credit for directing the pair to underplay even the big dramatic scenes: These women are in many ways temperamentally similar while being presented in stark contrast to one another visually (Medel is short and dark-haired with an open, honest face while Kuhling is tall, fair, angular and more guarded), suggesting that they are meant to be seen as doppelgangers. While it is probably going too far to say that Mara and Jo represent two halves of a single personality, there is a lingering sense that each of these women, while on opposite narrative trajectories, could have easily ended up on the path of the other. The way Sallitt charts the evolution of their relationship over a span of several years in his uniquely quiet and de-dramatized fashion only makes the drama that is present all the more affecting. Scenes take place primarily indoors in modest apartments, restaurants and bars, unfolding in long takes that feature practical lighting, with the dialogue and performances always taking center stage. But what makes FOURTEEN not just a stirring experience but an exquisitely cinematic one is the daring nature of Sallitt’s elliptical editing. He tends to end scenes without ceremony, often straight-cutting from one seemingly unimportant moment to another, making it seem as if no time has passed. Then, all of a sudden, the abrupt appearance of a new boyfriend or even a new offspring in a scene dramatically contradicts this prior impression. The cumulative effect of Sallitt structuring his deceptively simple 94-minute film this way is that he impressively conveys a sense of the ebb and flow of life as it is actually lived, felt and remembered — and provides a devastating reminder of how time gets away from us all. (2019, 94 min) MGS


Jacques Rivette’s CELINE AND JULIE GO BOATING

I wrote the following review of Jacques Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating for this week’s Cine-File Chicago streaming list:

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Jacques Rivette’s CELINE AND JULIE GO BOATING (French)
Available to stream on the Criterion Channel (subscription required).

In 2012, the critic Miriam Bale coined the phrase “persona-swap film” to describe a previously unacknowledged genre, one that stretches from Howard Hawks’ GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES in 1953 through David Lynch’s MULHOLLAND DRIVE half a century later. She cites Jacques Rivette’s 1974 masterpiece CELINE AND JULIE GO BOATING as an essential entry in this unique cycle of movies that focuses on the female experience by examining how two friends with contrasting personalities – one eccentric, the other more conventional – either swap or magically merge identities. The publication of Bale’s essay coincided with the rehabilitation of Rivette’s reputation when a number of his major films that were previously difficult to see started to become more widely available in the wake of his 2009 retirement. CELINE AND JULIE GO BOATING, the most accessible film from Rivette’s greatest period (1969-1976), is only now receiving its long-awaited streaming debut in America, having never been released on DVD or Blu-ray in this country. (This, by itself, is a good reason to subscribe to the Criterion Channel.) Based on a 2017 restoration of the original 16mm elements by France’s Centre National du Cinéma, the movie’s colors are now tighter than ever, while the plentiful grain within its Academy aspect ratio is beautifully preserved — at times giving the image the quality of a pointillist painting. But the irresistible central performances — by two actresses with pointedly contrasting styles (the theatrically trained Dominique Labourier as Celine and the natural-born movie star Juliet Berto as Julie) — have always been and still are the main draw. Berto and Labourier, who also co-wrote, have admitted to consciously drawing on Bergman’s PERSONA for inspiration (while Rivette, more typically, was thinking of Hawks) as they created the scenario of a magician befriending a librarian and, with the aid of a psychotropic hard candy, entering into a “house of fiction.” This location is a literal Parisian mansion inside of which the same 19th-century mystery story (involving a love triangle and the murder of a young girl) plays out each time the women pay it a visit. Eduardo de Gregorio, Rivette’s regular co-writer during this period, apparently scripted these “film-within-a-film” scenes based on two stories by Henry James. The way Celine and Julie start out as passive spectators of the Jamesian mystery but gradually become active participants in its plot underscores the most intellectually provocative aspect of this otherwise supremely playful opus: A lot of filmmakers have made great movies about the process of making movies – but only Rivette made a great one about the process of watching them. The result is one rabbit hole I am happy to go down again and again. (1974, 194 min,) MGS


Pedro Costa’s VITALINA VARELA

I wrote the following review of Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela for this week’s Cine-File Chicago streaming list. It is a revised/improved version of the introduction I wrote to the interview I conducted with Pedro for Cine-File last fall:

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Pedro Costa’s VITALINA VARELA (Portuguese)
Available to rent via the Gene Siskel Film Center here.

Pedro Costa has been one of the world’s most important filmmakers for the past quarter of a century. It was therefore surprising that it wasn’t until last year that one of his films, VITALINA VARELA, won the top award at a major festival (Locarno). This deserved honor, coupled with theatrical distribution from the enterprising Grasshopper Films in the U.S., has thankfully upped the great Portuguese director’s profile even further. Over the course of his career, Costa’s unique, poetic style of filmmaking has evolved from working with full screenplays and professional actors (French movie stars Isaach De Bankole and Edith Scob appear in 1994’s CASA DE LAVA) to casting non-professionals to portray some version of themselves (notably Cape Verdean immigrants living in working-class neighborhoods in Lisbon — including Fontainhas, the systematic destruction of which was captured in the director’s 2000 masterpiece IN VANDA’S ROOM). Along the way there have been side trips into documentary filmmaking proper (WHERE DOES YOUR HIDDEN SMILE LIE? and CHANGE NOTHING both document the working lives of artists Costa admires: filmmaking team Straub/Huillet and chanteuse/actress Jeanne Balibar, respectively). VITALINA VARELA, however, feels like something of an apotheosis for Costa — his work in its purest form. Taking its title from the protagonist (and the actress who plays her), VITALINA VARELA is literally the darkest and, arguably, most beautiful film he has yet made. No one knows how to light and frame images like Costa; where most directors film daytime interiors by framing actors against windows, and thus shooting into the light, Costa nearly always frames his subjects against the walls of dark, cave-like interiors, allowing them to be illuminated only by the light entering from windows on the room’s opposite side. Of course, the resulting painterly images would not count for much if Costa’s cinematographic eye wasn’t also focused on a compelling subject. Enter Vitalina Varela, a Cape Verdean woman whose sad story of attempting to join her husband in Portugal after having spent decades apart, but tragically arriving just three days after his death, was first recounted during her brief appearance in Costa’s previous film, 2014’s HORSE MONEY. The lead in that movie, Ventura, returns here in a supporting role as the priest of a ramshackle church whose congregation has long abandoned him – a powerful incarnation that, as Costa has acknowledged, evokes performances from cinema’s history as disparate as Claude Laydu in THE DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST and Joel McCrea in STARS IN MY CROWN. But this show ultimately belongs to Vitalina Varela, whose striking physicality and dramatic sotto voce line readings make her one of the most remarkable screen presences of any movie in recent years. Watching this beautiful and resilient woman contend with a crumbling ceiling while taking a shower or, in a ravishing sequence worthy of John Ford, repairing her roof in a windstorm, constituted an authentic religious experience for this viewer. (2019, 124 min) MGS


Eric Rohmer’s RENDEZVOUS IN PARIS

I wrote the following review of Eric Rohmer’s Rendezvous in Paris for this week’s COVID-19/all-streaming Cine-file Chicago list.

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Eric Rohmer’s RENDEZVOUS IN PARIS (French)
Available to stream free at https://www.tubitv.com 

Who knows what possessed Eric Rohmer, at the ripe old age of 74, to interrupt the making of his “Tales of the Four Seasons,” the third and final of his major film cycles (following “Six Moral Tales” and “Comedies and Proverbs”), in order to knock off this quickie rom-com anthology in 1995? Surely he must have realized that, at his advanced age, each new movie could very well be his last, while also knowing that he had two more features (A SUMMER’S TALE and AN AUTUMN TALE) to shoot. Whatever the reason, we should all thank the cinema gods that he did decide to write and direct this small, unexpected masterpiece consisting of three separate vignettes about meetings — some by chance, others planned — between young men and women in the titular city: RENDEZVOUS IN PARIS captures the spirit of the Nouvelle Vague more closely than what any of this director’s contemporaries achieved from the 1980s onwards (the only real competition being Jacques Rivette’s UP DOWN FRAGILE from the same year). In fact, the continuity between Rohmer’s first feature, THE SIGN OF LEO, made in 1959, and this — in terms of character, setting, theme and even visual style — is remarkable; Rohmer captures here the vagaries of the human heart by photographing, in handheld, freewheeling 16mm, the relationship dynamics between an amusing gallery of college students, teachers, artists and other assorted bohemians, with a winning fleetness that suggests a much younger filmmaker. The first story, “The 7 O’clock Rendezvous,” follows a student (Clara Bellar) who improvises a plan to exact revenge on the boyfriend she suspects of cheating on her. Packed with enough characters and intricate plot twists to sustain a whole feature, it is the most conventionally entertaining of the three. The second story, “The Benches of Paris,” depicts a series of meetings in public parks between a young woman in a committed relationship (the superb Aurore Rauscher) and another man, a would-be suitor, with whom she refuses to meet in private. The narrative seems almost meandering until Rohmer arrives at a surprising, and exceedingly clever, punchline of an ending. The third story, “Mother and Child, 1907,” is the best of the lot: it offers a hilarious, satirical portrait of a pretentious/mansplaining painter (Michael Kraft) who stalks a potential female conquest inside and outside of an art gallery near his home studio. Tying all of these stories together are performances by a male/female street-musician duo (both play accordion and sing), who function as a kind of Greek chorus and threaten to turn the whole enterprise into a parody of stereotypical notions of “Gallic charm.” Perhaps this last element is why some critics have dismissed RENDEZVOUS IN PARIS as nothing more than lightweight fluff but there’s a reason why no less a luminary than Rivette considered it to be not just his favorite Rohmer movie but a “summit of French cinema.” (1995, 98 min) MGS


Jean-Marie Straub’s FRANCE AGAINST ROBOTS

I wrote the following review of Jean-Marie Straub’s latest, France Against Robots, for this week’s Cine-File list. You only have two more days to stream it!

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Jean-Marie Straub’s FRANCE AGAINST ROBOTS (French)

Available to stream free at https://kinoslang.blogspot.com through 4/12.

Jean-Marie Straub’s latest, FRANCE AGAINST ROBOTS, recently received its World Premiere online at Kino Slang, the blog of film programmer Andy Rector. This surprise event is the inaugural program of a new weekly online series sparked by the worldwide quarantine, which, to my mind, puts it in the same “corona-ssaince” category as Bob Dylan’s stealth-dropping of the 17-minute single “Murder Most Foul” and Jean-Luc Godard’s surprise appearance on Instagram Live Chat (in which the great director spoke at length about “images in the time of the coronavirus”). Straub’s 10-minute short begins with a five-minute long take/tracking shot that follows Christophe Clavert (best known as a cinematographer) in three-quarters view from behind as he strolls alongside a Swiss lake and recites a Georges Bernanos text from 1945 about political revolution. The substance of this text, which provides the film with its title, is that different forms of government (e.g., “the Imperial English Democracy, the Plutocratic American Democracy and the Marxist Empire of Soviet Dominions”) may appear to be in opposition but actually share the goal of maintaining the same system that allowed them to acquire wealth and power in the first place. The notion that the Soviet Union “profited from Capitalism” no less than the United States, which must have seemed perverse when Bernanos wrote it at the dawn of the Cold War, looks eerily prescient from the vantage point of the 21st century – but the real hammer blow arrives in the last two lines of Bernanos’ text that Clavert speaks (certainly the most important film dialogue I expect to hear all year): “In short: regimes formerly opposed in ideology are now directly united by Technology. A world dominated by Technology is lost for Liberty.” Clavert stops walking to deliver this last line, and the camera tracking behind him follows suit, as if to emphasize its importance. It is here that viewers likely first become aware that the sky in this shot, filmed at dusk, has considerably darkened over the course of the previous five minutes. Then a curious thing happens: The film restarts. We see the opening titles again followed by another five-minute long take of the same action (Clavert walking alongside the same lake and reciting the same text); only this time the sky is brighter, presumably because it was shot earlier in the day than the take that precedes it. It’s important to note here that Clavert is also credited as “Editor,” which might seem curious for a short that essentially consists of two shots but this single cut proves to be crucial to the film’s overall meaning. In addition to the way the dark/light dichotomy arguably injects a sense of optimism into the proceedings, Straub/Clavert’s allowing us to see the same thing twice also highlights what is specifically filmic about FRANCE AGAINST ROBOTS. This is not merely a film about someone talking. As with the work of Eric Rohmer, it’s about someone talking in a specific time and place – a quality underscored by the way viewers can perceive the slightest variations between the two takes, not just in the images but also on the soundtrack: Along with Clavert’s spoken-word monologue, dig the slightly heightened sounds of honking geese and lapping waves in the background (the mixing of which is credited to the legendary François Musy). (2020, 10 min) MGS


PROUD CITIZEN and FORT MARIA

I wrote the following joint review of PROUD CITIZEN and FORT MARIA, two microbudget comedies streaming exclusively at http://www.publiccinema.org through April 8, for the COVID-19/all-streaming version of Cine-File Chicago.

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Thomas Southerland’s PROUD CITIZEN / Thomas Southerland and S. Cagney Gentry’s FORT MARIA (US)

Available to stream free at www.publiccinema.org through 4/08.

These two delightful black-and-white microbudget features, each reportedly made for less than $10,000, prove that regional independent filmmaking is alive and well in America. They both star Bulgarian-born poet Katerina Stoykova-Klemer, who probably deserves to be considered a “co-auteur” alongside directors Thomas Southerland and S. Cagney Gentry by virtue of the fact that her dialogue in the films was largely improvised and by the sheer force of her quirky and quietly remarkable screen persona. PROUD CITIZEN (2014, 90 min.) details a week in the life of Krasimira (Stoykova-Klemer), a Bulgarian writer who travels to Lexington, Kentucky to attend the World Premiere of an autobiographical play she wrote about her Communist-era childhood after it wins second place in an international playwriting contest. The fish-out-of-water premise allows Southerland to examine his home state through a foreigner’s eyes as Krasimira interacts with members of the regional theater troupe who are staging the play and attends a patriotic Fourth of July parade; the rich vein of deadpan humor that this scenario opens up is reminiscent of early Jim Jarmusch but Southerland makes the material his own by coaxing impressively naturalistic performances from his mostly non-professional cast so that the film at times feels more like documentary than fiction. FORT MARIA (2018, 85 min.) involves many of the same elements as PROUD CITIZEN but improves upon the earlier movie by applying a more elegant visual style and a more ambitious narrative structure to its subject matter: Maria (Stoykova-Klemer) is an agoraphobic Bulgarian woman living in Kentucky who attempts to assuage the homesickness she feels for the old country by using Google Street View to visit it virtually. The narrative alternates between scenes of Maria talking to her younger neighbor, Clara (Jamie Hickman), who frequently drops in to check on her, and scenes involving Maria’s adopted African-American daughter, Meredith (Meredith Crutcher), who goes to visit her biological aunt, Violet (Joan Brannon), in North Carolina. The expertly musical way that Southerland and Gentry cross-cut between conversations involving all four of these women (two white and two black, at home and at work, in two different states) yields dividends that are sometimes poignant, sometimes humorous and, in the case of one digressive episode about Maria’s ill-fated romance with a co-worker, uproariously funny. MGS


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