Category Archives: Film Reviews

Preliminary Thoughts on the Complete Films of Agnes Varda

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The Criterion Collection’s recent Blu-ray release of the Complete Films of Agnes Varda is one of the most impressive home video box sets ever devoted to a single filmmaker. This mammoth set includes 21 feature films, 17 “official” shorts and a lengthy television miniseries (not to mention a Varda-directed made-for T.V. feature, the long-suppressed Nausicaa, and even more Varda-directed shorts among its many special features), the life’s work of a prolific director whose professional career spanned a whopping 65 years. The set makes the case that Varda, who has never gotten the full credit she is due as a filmmaker despite becoming a beloved icon of arthouse cinema in her later years, is one of the greatest artists to ever step behind a camera. Varda arguably founded the French New Wave when she made her first feature, the startlingly innovative La Pointe Court, in 1954, four years before Claude Chabrol supposedly accomplished the same feat with Le Beau Serge in 1958. And the winding path she pursued afterwards, first as a member of the “Left Bank” wing of the nouvelle vague (along with fellow cinematic titans Alain Resnais, Chris Marker and her husband, Jacques Demy), then as a fiercely independent filmmaker who always followed her own muse, was always exciting and edifying: From France to California to Iran, Varda made films wherever she pleased and about whatever subjects struck her fancy. After watching all 39 of her films, I can also now say that she never made a bad movie.

From a documentary short about the Black Panthers in 1968 to a magical-realist fable in which the then-100 year old cinema is personified by an old man played by Michel Piccoli in 1995, Varda’s filmography can also feel almost impossibly diverse in terms of subject matter and style. And yet binding together all of the disparate works collected in this box set is the sheer force of Varda’s winning personality. She always seemed genuinely curious about and sympathetic to the people who appeared in front of her camera – something that is especially true of “ordinary” people. In the segment devoted to Russia in her superb 2011 minisersies Here and There, for instance, Varda seems as interested in her working-class chauffeur as she does in the famous director Aleksandr Sokurov. Another through-line is her playful and humorous approach to film form. Varda’s painterly, always-meaningful use of color and her singular sense of composition and cutting frequently exhibit a sharp visual wit, a quality that is evident in everything from Coasting Along the Coast, a travelogue she was commissioned to make about the French Riviera at the dawn of her career, to her mature masterpiece (and the ostensibly dour) Vagabond in 1985. To be completely honest, her humor doesn’t always work for me. I find her sense of whimsy, manifested most explicitly in the more representational aspects of Lion’s Love (…and Lies), Jane B. par Agnes V. and One Hundred and One Nights, where actors self-consciously don exaggerated costumes and wigs and engage in “play acting,” to be a little grating.

But does any filmmaker who has made at least 10 narrative features and 10 documentary features have such a high batting average across both disciplines? I highly doubt it. Most of the time, when filmmakers known for their fiction work make non-fiction films, or vice-versa, they are merely dabbling. Varda’s friend Martin Scorsese has made some great documentaries, to be sure, but he will always be thought of and rightly celebrated primarily for his narrative work. By contrast, if one were to “disappear” all of Varda’s narrative films, she would still be considered a giant of the documentary form based on The Gleaners and I, Mur Murs, Daguerreotypes, Uncle Yanco and other films. And if, for some reason, Varda had never made any of those non-fiction works, she would still be considered a master of cinema because of extraordinary movies like Vagabond, Cleo from 5 to 7, Documenteur, Le Bonheur and more. Of course, it is somewhat counterproductive to think of her career in terms of “fiction vs. non-fiction” since part of Varda’s project from day one was to intertwine the two. La Pointe Court is essentially two movies in one: the (fictional) story of a disintegrating relationship told against the (documentary) backdrop of a rural fishing village. Later, Varda made the documentary Mur Murs about the public murals of Los Angeles, which she became fascinated by while making the fictional Documenteur; and the provocative narrative Kung-Fu Master! arose from the making of the non-fiction Jane B. par Agnes V. when the subject of the latter film, Jane Birkin, pitched a story idea to her director; Vagabond is a fiction feature that contains pseudo-documentary interview interludes. And so on.

It is probably impossible to do justice to the Complete Films of Agnes Varda in a review so soon after its release because the set is so elaborate it feels like it will take years before anyone reaches the bottom: almost every film is accompanied by a video introduction by Varda, even the shorts (in at least one instance her intro is longer than the film itself), and the features are contextualized by copious special features, many of which I haven’t yet gotten around to seeing. But suffice it to say that I could not recommend this set more highly. There have been few filmmakers in the history of cinema whose work has meant as much to me as Varda’s has. I saw my first film by her, The Young Girls Turn 25, at the Chicago International Film Festival in 1993 when I was an impressionable 18-year-old transplant from North Carolina and it was a life-changing experience. (You can hear the full story of that cinematic encounter on the first episode of my now-defunct podcast, the White City Cinema Radio Hour, where I discuss Varda’s career with critics Ben and Kat Sachs here.)  You can also read my interview with Agnes for Time Out Chicago, conducted in 2015 when she was in town for a retrospective of her film career and a photography exhibit/installation, “Photographs Get Moving (potatoes and shells too),” at the University of Chicago. Finally, you can read my obituary of her on this site from last year here. I loved her as a filmmaker and person and I couldn’t be happier that her complete works have been so lovingly preserved, collected and presented in this box set so that I can revisit them again and again in the future.

Below are my highly subjective rankings of all the features in the Complete Films of Agnes Varda. (Her work in the short-film format is also extremely important, and her best shorts are masterpieces, but they don’t lend themselves as easily to being ranked as the features do.)

Fiction Features

11. One Hundred and One Nights (1995) – B
10. Lions Love (…and Lies) (1969) – B
9. La Pointe Court (1954) – B+
8. The Creatures (1966) – B+
7. Jacquot de Nantes (1991) – A-
6. One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (1977) – A-
5. Kung-Fu Master! (1988) – A
4. Le Bonheur (1965) – A
3. Documenteur (1981) – A+
2. Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962) – A+
1. Vagabond (1985) – A+

Non-Fiction Features

10. Varda by Agnes (2019) – B
9. Faces Places (2017) – B
8. Jane B. by Agnes V. (1988) – B
7. The Gleaners and I: Two Years Later (2002) – B+
6. The World of Jacques Demy (1995) – B+
5. The Young Girls Turn 25 (1993) – A-
4. The Beaches of Agnes (2008) – A-
3. Daguerreotypes (1975) – A
2. Mur Murs (1981)  – A
1. The Gleaners and I (2000) – A+

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Stephen Cone’s HENRY GAMBLE’S BIRTHDAY PARTY

I wrote the following review of Stephen Cone’s HENRY GAMBLE’S BIRTHDAY PARTY for Cine-file Chicago.

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Stephen Cone’s HENRY GAMBLE’S BIRTHDAY PARTY (US)
Available to stream on the Criterion Channel with subscription

Across eight features and numerous shorts, Chicago-based independent filmmaker Stephen Cone has carved out an indelible niche in America’s 21st-century cinematic landscape. The son of a southern Baptist minister who came to filmmaking by way of theater, Cone has made a name for himself by chronicling the eternal conflict between the ways of the flesh and the spirit — always with an impressively humanistic eye and often within an adolescent/LGBTQ context. His heartfelt movies have steadily won over festival audiences and critics since THE WISE KIDS premiered nearly a decade ago but Cone stands to gain deservedly wider recognition than ever before now that the prestigious Criterion Channel is spotlighting three of his best films. HENRY GAMBLE’S BIRTHDAY PARTY, Cone’s seventh feature, is an ideal introduction to his work for the uninitiated. It’s a coming-of-age story in which an individual’s coming of age is telescoped into a single day and location: the titular 17th birthday party of the son of a “megachurch” pastor. The party takes place mainly in and around a backyard swimming pool and is populated by a large cast of teenage characters (i.e., Henry Gamble’s religious and secular friends) as well as their adult parents. Central among the many external and internal conflicts depicted in this charged suburban milieu is Henry’s coming to terms with his sexual identity. Although it has its cinematic forebears (an opening scene in which the closeted-gay Henry masturbates with his hetero best friend Gabe is an explicit homage to Andre Techine’s WILD REEDS), the film ultimately impresses for its cultural specificity: Cone has stated that the starting point for his original screenplay was the act of making a list of people he knew from childhood, a strategy that clearly pays dividends when it comes to such humorously authentic lines of dialogue as “Are you churched?” or “Well, Jesus drank.” Cone also admirably avoids stereotypes — he’s especially good at showing, in a realistic manner, how the tiniest cracks can appear in the belief systems of his evangelical characters — and his script is brought to life by a fine ensemble cast (Nina Ganet as Henry’s repressed older sister Autumn and Elizabeth Laidlaw as their long-suffering mother are especially good) and Jason Chiu’s masterful widescreen cinematography. (2015, 87 min, MGS)


The Ross Brothers’ BLOODY NOSE, EMPTY POCKETS

I reviewed the Ross brothers’ BLOODY NOSE, EMPTY POCKETS for this week’s Cinefile Chicago list.

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Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross’ BLOODY NOSE, EMPTY POCKETS (Documentary)
Music Box Theatre – available to rent digitally here.

For dive-bar aficionados and sleazy-atmosphere enthusiasts, BLOODY NOSE, EMPTY POCKETS may be the ultimate quarantine movie. A transporting work so pungent that you can smell it, the Ross brothers’ film documents the last 24 hours inside of “The Roaring 20s,” a colorful Las Vegas watering hole, before its permanent closure. It begins with Michael Martin, a charismatic patron who resembles a drunken, degenerate version of Seymour Cassell, waking up in the bar in the morning, doing a shot of bourbon from a coffee cup then heading into the bathroom to shave with an electric razor – all with the full blessing of the bar’s daytime staff. In one of many humorous lines of “dialogue,” Michael states that he takes pride in the fact that he didn’t become an alcoholic until after he was “already a failure.” Does that sad logic make you smile? Then this is a movie for you. Does it make you wince? It still might be a movie for you. Over the course of what seems to be a typical day and night, the bar slowly fills up with regulars, all of them memorable characters in their own right. They watch JEOPARDY, shoot the shit, dance to songs on the jukebox, and become increasingly intoxicated as the blinding sunlight visible through the establishment’s front door slowly fades from the sky, allowing the dingy, red-hued lighting of the bar’s interior to work its nighttime magic. BLOODY NOSE, EMPTY POCKETS is an exceptionally beautiful film, a tough but empathetic portrait of working-class American life that Charles Bukowski would have loved. Among the many memorable moments: A Grizzly Adams-looking bartender serenades the room with a surprisingly poignant cover of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” on an acoustic guitar; a woman proudly bares her “60-year-old titties” to the stranger on the barstool next to her; a cake, emblazoned with the words “THIS PLACE SUCKED ANYWAYS” in frosting, is consumed; Sergei Eisenstein’s Soviet Montage masterpiece THE BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN shows on a television monitor while country music incongruously fills the air; and the kids out back smoke weed while discussing the amount of Plutonium required to change the earth’s balance. There is nothing on screen to suggest that there are fictional elements, or filmmaking trickery of any sort, present – so revelations that the film’s cast was actually found after a nationwide audition process and that the bar’s interiors were shot in New Orleans (over a span of two 18-hour days) then cut together with exteriors of Sin City, has rankled some critics and viewers who claim to feel duped by the filmmakers’ supposed dishonesty. But combining documentary and fiction techniques is as old as the cinema itself and, in the end, what matters is not how the thing is done but why. I would argue that, by presenting The Roaring 20s as a kind of microcosm of contemporary America, a space filled with a multiracial cast of self-medicating “99 percenters,” the Ross brothers have created an indirect critique of late capitalism that feels more truthful than what could have been achieved through traditional documentary means. (2020, 98 min) MGS


Theodore Collatos and Carolina Monnerat’s QUEEN OF LAPA

I reviewed Theodore Collatos and Carolina Monnerat’s Queen of Lapa for this week’s Cinefile Chicago list.

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Theodore Collatos and Carolina Monnerat’s QUEEN OF LAPA (Brazil/Documentary)

Available for rent from various “virtual cinemas” via Factory 25 here

Brooklyn-based filmmaker Theodore Collatos is best known for directing the impressive micro-budget narrative features DIPSO (2012) and TORMENTING THE HEN (2017), the latter of which stars his wife, the gifted Brazilian actress Carolina Monnerat. QUEEN OF LAPA is a cinema verité documentary in which Monnerat teams up with Collatos behind the camera to ostensibly chronicle the legendary Brazilian transgender prostitute-turned-activist Luana Muniz. The film’s title is somewhat misleading, however, as this doc is as much about the group of younger trans sex workers that Muniz has taken under her wing, and who reside in a hostel she runs in Rio de Janeiro’s Lapa neighborhood, as it is about the colorful matriarch Muniz herself. Unlike most movies (fiction and non-fiction alike) that take prostitution as their subject, QUEEN OF LAPA seems to studiously avoid depicting interactions between sex workers and johns, the latter of whom are virtually nowhere to be seen, and focuses instead almost exclusively on the sisterhood of these vibrant young women who live and work together under the same roof. One memorable scene shows a conversation between two friendly rivals about whether or not it’s ethical to enjoy sex when one is being paid for it. Another features a prostitute, standing alone by a window, taking a flat iron to her wig while simultaneously recalling stories about the earliest clients she had when she was still a child. What these remarkable scenes, and others like them, have in common is a tone of quiet authenticity that can only be achieved when an unusually high degree of mutual trust is established between filmmaker and subject. It’s a compassionate and non-sensationalistic look at the inside of a subculture that most viewers will be unfamiliar with. So much of QUEEN OF LAPA takes place inside the House of Muniz, in fact, that it ends up becoming a fascinating portrait of an interior world whose denizens have established their own rules; or as Muniz herself poetically puts it, it’s “one of the last communities where humans can dream.” This self-enclosed, self-created world is thrown into stark relief whenever Collatos and Monnerat’s camera does venture out into the streets or into a nearby cabaret nightclub where the larger-than-life Muniz performs an awesome slow-motion dance number to a karaoke version of an Elton John song. All of which is to say, this is perfect Pride-month viewing. (2019, 83 min) MGS


Spike Lee’s 3 BROTHERS

I reviewed Spike Lee’s 95-second short film 3 Brothers for this week’s Cine-file Chicago list.

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Spike Lee’s 3 BROTHERS (American)
Available to watch on Spike Lee’s Twitter account here

Spike Lee’s first quarantine short film, the coronavirus-themed NEW YORK NEW YORK, was a joyous love letter to the director’s hometown in which he depicted iconic NYC locations mostly absent of people, set to Frank Sinatra’s famous 1979 recording of the song by the same name. His second, 3 BROTHERS, arriving just weeks later, is a simple but devastating 95-second piece of agitprop: Lee intercuts the climactic scene of his 1989 masterpiece DO THE RIGHT THING – the murder of Radio Raheem at the hands of the police – with cell-phone footage captured by witnesses to the similar real-life murders of Eric Garner in 2014 and George Floyd in 2020. Clips from all three films are linked by image (matching cuts of the cops placing their victims in illegal chokeholds) as well as sound (the refrain “I can’t breathe!” spoken by both Garner and Floyd). 3 BROTHERS ends by juxtaposing shots of each victim’s lifeless body while a bystander in the video of Floyd’s murder can be heard admonishing the cops, “You just really killed that man, bro!” The only onscreen text is a rhetorical question, “When Will History Stop Repeating Itself?,” that appears in crimson letters over a black screen at the film’s beginning. DO THE RIGHT THING, which ended with Samuel L. Jackson’s disc-jockey character reminding his radio station’s listeners (and, by extension, the movie’s viewers) to vote in an upcoming election, should not have remained this relevant 31 fucking years after its initial release. Watching this brief, gut-wrenching snuff film of a coda ought to infuriate anyone with a heart and a brain, and serves as a similar call to action. (2020, 2 min) MGS

 


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


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