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Category Archives: Film Reviews

Emily Lape’s MERCY’S GIRL and Dustin Puehler’s IN A MOMENT

My reviews of Emily Lape’s Mercy’s Girl and Dustin Puehler’s In a Moment, both of which screen at the Middle Coast Film Festival this weekend, appeared at Time Out Chicago today. I’m reprinting them below.

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The most high profile event of the Middle Coast Film Festival, which kicks off at the Davis Theatre this Friday, September 21, will be an opening night anniversary screening of The Birdcage co-hosted by local drag queens Lucy Stoole and Kat Sass. While that should start the fest on an irreverently fun note (and if you haven’t yet seen the film, it’s worth checking out for Elaine May’s witty script and Gene Hackman’s layered performance), some of the other highlights are lesser-known new works by local independent filmmakers. In addition to a well-curated locally made shorts block, which presents another chance for Chicagoans to catch amazing short films like Maggie Scrantom’s Atoms of Ashes and Clare Cooney’s Runner, Middle Coast will also screen impressive micro-budget features like Mercy’s Girl and In a Moment.

Mercy’s Girl, an auspicious debut feature from veteran actress, but first-time writer and director, Emily Lape, centers on a young woman living on the North Side of Chicago whose alcoholism and closeted sexuality can both be traced to a fraught relationship with her religious, blue-collar parents. Mercy (Lape in a wonderfully understated performance) finds her world turned upside down when she engages in her first serious relationship with another woman: free-spirited college student Jesse (Alison Hixon). This ultra-realistic drama may toil in the same “flesh vs. spirit” thematic vineyard as Chicago filmmaker Stephen Cone (Princess Cyd) but Lape also has her own unique cinematic voice, one so attuned to the textures of everyday life in the Windy City that the accumulation of the smallest details in the production design and the subtlest gestures of performance eventually add up to a quietly devastating portrait of an ordinary life. Think of a female version of Mike Leigh (Naked) at his toughest and you’ll have some idea of what Lape is up to here.

In A Moment occupies Middle Coast’s sole late night slot and is a good example of how even the grungiest genre fare can be elevated by a creative approach. Writer and director Dustin Puehler juxtaposes two separate Michigan-set narratives—one involving a rural gay man’s search for love on the internet, the other a group of roving, drug-addled criminals on a home-invasion spree—then inexorably brings them together for a bloody B-movie climax. Working with limited resources and money clearly didn’t hold Puehler back from putting a lot of care into the stylized color cinematography, jagged editing rhythms and an almost Lynchian attention to sound design (where heightened sound effects are occasionally indistinguishable from Campfire’s atmospheric original score), creating an intense cinematic experience. This is the kind of gem that too often gets passed over by film festivals, so Middle Coast should be commended for programming it. Seeing it with a buzzed, late-night crowd should be fun.

For more information including ticket info and showtimes visit Middle Coast’s website

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Alfred Hitchcock’s THE LODGER at the Northbrook Public Library

I wrote a new capsule review of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger (the master’s first great film!) for Cine-File Chicago. A restored version screens at the Northbrook Public Library next Wednesday.

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Alfred Hitchcock’s THE LODGER: A STORY OF THE LONDON FOG (Silent British Revival)
Northbrook Public Library (1201 Cedar Lane, Northbrook) – Wednesday, 1 and 7pm (Free Admission)

One of the most important and revelatory film restoration projects of recent years has been the British Film Institute’s ambitious digital refurbishing of the “Hitchcock 9” (the nine extant films that Alfred Hitchcock made in England during the silent era), re-releases of which first toured the U.S. in 2014. The crown jewel of this series is 1927’s THE LODGER, which, in spite of being the master of suspense’s first thriller and thus arguably the first true “Hitchcock film,” still hasn’t gotten its due in many quarters for being the great movie that it is. It probably hasn’t helped matters much that Hitch himself practically dismissed it in the seminal interview book Hitchcock/Truffaut by discussing it primarily in terms of pulling off the neat technical trick of shooting through a glass floor. But THE LODGER is much more interesting than that. The narrative intertwines two of what would soon become the director’s trademark plots: the story of a murderer and a “wrong man” plot (in which an ordinary man is accused of a crime he didn’t commit). THE LODGER is also, unforgettably, a love story. Daisy (June Tripp), the daughter of a married couple who run a boarding house, falls in love with the eponymous but unnamed title character (matinee idol Ivor Novello), who is also the chief suspect in a series of grisly stranglings of young blonde women. The way Hitchcock laces these elements with a potent eroticism as well as a sense of humor is impressive, notably in a scene where the lodger and Daisy play chess (the context of which gives his line “I’ll get you yet” a delicious triple meaning). When the lodger picks up a blow-poke just as Daisy bends over to pick up a chess piece that’s fallen to the floor, the viewer is left to wonder if he intends to bash her brains in. That he ends up merely stoking the fireplace nearby is both the film’s darkest and funniest joke—one that calls to mind Truffaut’s remark that Hitchcock filmed love scenes like murder scenes and vice-versa. THE LODGER was also a clear influence on Fritz Lang’s M, both in its depiction of how murder can drive a community into a lynch mob-like hysteria and in terms of its visual style: Hitch used triangle shapes as a recurring visual motif in much the same way that his German counterpart would employ spirals. Even more significantly, I never realized the extent of how expressionistically lit THE LODGER was until I viewed the BFI’s restoration, which gloriously reveals many previously unseen details in the sublime, high-contrast cinematography. Live accompaniment by Dave Drazin at both shows. (1927, 92 min, Digital Projection) MGS


Julien Faraut’s JOHN MCENROE: IN THE REALM OF PERFECTION

I wrote the following review of Julien Faraut’s John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection, my favorite documentary of 2018, for this week’s Cine-File Chicago. It opens at the Gene Siskel Film Center for a week-long run today.

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Julien Faraut’s JOHN MCENROE: IN THE REALM OF PERFECTION (New Documentary)
Gene Siskel Film Center – Check Venue website for showtimes

The starting point for this fascinating and endlessly surprising documentary by Julien Faraut was the director’s discovery of a previously unseen cache of 16mm film rolls dating from the mid-1980s that featured John McEnroe at Roland Garros, the tennis tournament commonly known as the “French Open.” This archival footage was originally shot by another director, Gil de Kermadec, for a series of instructional films that began in the 1960s and for which McEnroe, the controversial world number one who helped popularize tennis when it first became widely televised, served as the final subject. De Kermadec shot more than 20 times the amount of footage that he needed for his official portrait of McEnroe, more than he captured of any other player, and the awesome “leftover” footage provided an audiovisual goldmine for Faraut’s idiosyncratic essay film. The younger director eschews most non-fiction filmmaking norms – there are no contemporary interviews, and his witty, scripted narration, spoken in voice-over by actor Mathieu Amalric in English, makes no attempt to offer any sort of conventional context for who McEnroe is or why he was important to the sport. Instead, Faraut uses de Kermadec’s footage as an investigative tool to make an in-depth study of the beauty and creativity of McEnroe’s playing style, and to draw parallels between tennis and cinema. This wildly unorthodox approach is apparent from an opening quotation by tennis fan Jean-Luc Godard (“Cinema lies, sport doesn’t”), which is swiftly followed by an excerpt of a ridiculous early tennis-training film in black-and-white, then a gangbusters montage in glorious 16mm color, irresistibly scored to Sonic Youth’s “The Sprawl,” of McEnroe’s distinctive lefty serve on the burnt-orange clay surface of Roland Garros’ center court. Later, Faraut analyzes de Kermadec’s unusual technique of using medium shots to focus on a single player in three-quarters profile by noting that viewers of this type of shot are not like typical tennis spectators. As we watch McEnroe (but, crucially, not his opponent) scramble along the baseline, expertly mixing slices with flat hitting, Amalric’s narration informs us that we are being invited to discover “with a certain empathy, what is actually needed to win a point in a tennis match.” Slow-motion shots break down McEnroe’s movement even further, showing “what the eye cannot see,” as Faraut makes comparisons between de Kermadec’s footage and the “chronophotographic” cinema experiments of the late 19th century. Faraut also invokes critic Serge Daney, who noted that one of the chief pleasures of the movies is the way they seemingly “invent time,” by contrasting the more fixed timetable of other sporting events with the way a tennis match’s unpredictable duration is determined by the ability of the players. McEnroe’s notorious temper tantrums are analyzed at length for their performative quality – in the film’s most outrageous conceit, Faraut overdubs a McEnroe tirade against a linesperson with a famous passage of dialogue from RAGING BULL in which Robert DeNiro’s Jake LaMotta harangues his younger brother (“Did you fuck my wife?”) – while McEnroe the player is elsewhere provocatively compared to a filmmaker. In Faraut’s analogy, the frequency with which McEnroe comes to the net to end points swiftly is akin to a director calling “Cut!” The only sequence in all of JOHN MCENROE: IN THE REALM OF PERFECTION that resembles anything close to a traditional sports biography comes during a suspenseful climax when Faraut shows a condensed version – complete with onscreen time-clock – of McEnroe’s see-saw 1984 French Open final against Ivan Lendl (a Czechoslovakian player whose lanky, gaunt figure, sunken cheeks, dark features and humorless demeanor made him the tennis equivalent of NOSFERATU’s Count Orlok), a match whose outcome gives this splendid movie its poignant and ironic subtitle. (2018, 95 min, DCP) MGS


Casey Puccini’s I DON’T CARE

The following review of Casey Puccini’s I Don’t Care appeared at Time Out Chicago today. 

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I Don’t Care, the sophomore feature of Chicago filmmaker Casey Puccini (Children Without Parents), will receive its local premiere at Chicago Filmmakers this Saturday, August 25. It’s a sharply made, acerbic comedy chronicling a pretentious filmmaker (played by Puccini himself in a performance that impresses for its stubborn refusal to elicit viewer sympathy) whose most recent micro-budget opus spirals out of control due to a combination of his own incompetence and unexamined hubris. Puccini has described the movie as not strictly autobiographical although, given that he’s also calling it a “cautionary tale,” it seems likely that both the central character and basic scenario arose from imagining his life having gone down a darker path.

If the selfish fictional character of “Casey Puccini” were the whole show, I Don’t Care might risk being a too-bitter pill to swallow. Fortunately, Puccini had the good sense to cast the soulful, Jeff-award winning actress Sasha Gioppo opposite him (as an actress named, you guessed it, Sasha), and much of this modest film’s comedic power results from waiting for her character—initially good-natured but unpaid and underfed—to crack under the guidance of her ungrateful and indecisive “auteur.” The tension between the two reaches a boiling point in this modest movie’s best scene, where a paranoid Gioppo accuses Puccini of stealing her necklace during the course of a particularly stressful shooting day. It’s a mini-masterpiece of cringe humor that should resonate with anyone familiar with the sometimes-harrowing process of artistic collaboration.

For more information about the Chicago Premiere of I Don’t Care visit the Chicago Filmmakers website.


Spike Lee’s BLACKkKLANSMAN

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Spike Lee’s galvanizing new comedy/drama BlacKkKlansman will be released in theaters this Friday, August 10, one year to the day after the notorious “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Viriginia became the site of violent clashes including a car attack that left one counter-protester dead. The release date is no coincidence: although the film is set in 1970s Colorado Springs, Colorado, one of its implicit aims is to use the incredible true story of a black undercover police officer’s successful infiltration of the Ku Klux Klan in order to examine America’s current cultural climate. The title cop, Ron Stallworth (played by newcomer John David Washington, Denzel’s son, in a charismatic, understated performance), communicated with the Klan via telephone then, taking a page from the Cyrano de Bergerac playbook, sent a white officer (Adam Driver, also wonderful) in his stead for face-to-face meetings. Bridging this era with the present is David Duke (Topher Grace), the KKK’s Grand Wizard who updated and sanitized the image of white nationalism, arguably paving the way for the racist hate-mongering that has characterized Donald Trump’s presidency. In telling this remarkable tale, Spike Lee has made his most vital narrative feature in decades and is deservedly receiving his widest theatrical distribution since Inside Man in 2006.

In spite of the seriousness of the subject matter, however, BlacKkKlansman is frequently hilarious as satire (especially the scenes involving Stallworth’s phone conversations with Duke). While Lee’s previous work has frequently been both sloppy and didactic, he’s able to pull off crazy tonal shifts here that are both complex and masterful – most notably in a startling coda using contemporary documentary footage that will undoubtedly be much talked about. BlacKkKlansman is also surprisingly taut as a genre piece; it’s a buddy cop film that nods to classic blaxploitation films from the era in which it’s set. The way it uses genre tropes to comment on social issues has caused some critics to compare it to Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You (which accomplished similar things with the horror and sci-fi genres, respectively). But the provocative way Lee superimposes the present onto the past ultimately put me in the mind of John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln more than any other movie: just as Ford’s myth-making about a canny young lawyer from Springfield, Illinois achieves a sublime poignancy because of the viewer’s knowledge of who Abe Lincoln will become in the future, so too does Lee achieve an ironic and tragic grandeur because of the viewer’s knowledge of what will happen to the whole damn United States of America after Stallworth’s assignment has ended. To paraphrase something Woodrow Wilson reportedly said about D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (itself a major reference point in BlacKkKlansman), Lee’s essential new film is history written with lightning.

To find theaters screening the film, ticket info and showtimes, visit BlacKkKlansman’s official website.


The Best Films of the Year So Far

All of these films first screened theatrically in Chicago in the first half of 2018. I’ve linked to my original reviews and podcast appearances where applicable and offer new thoughts on a few films I haven’t written about elsewhere. Enjoy.

20. Atoms of Ashes (Scrantom, USA)/Dancer (McCormick, USA)/Runner (Cooney, USA)

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Three astonishing debut shorts by young female directors, all of which received their Chicago premieres at local festivals (Women of the Now’s Anniversary Showcase, the Chicago Underground Film Festival and the Chicago Critics Film Festival, respectively). The future – of cinema, of everything – is female. I wrote capsule reviews of all three for Time Out Chicago: Atoms of Ashes here, Dancer here and Runner here.

19. The Art of Sitting Quietly and Doing Nothing (Alonzo, USA)

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I enjoyed this no-budget absurdist/minimalist comedy so much that I wrote about it twice (for Time Out Chicago here and Cine-File here) then moderated a post-screening Q&A with the cast and crew following the World Premiere at the Nightingale Cinema.

18. A Fantastic Woman (Lelio, Chile)

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Not as rich as Sebastian Lelio’s previous film, the sublime character study Gloria, this is nonetheless well worth seeing for Daniela Vega’s fantastic lead performance.

17. Annihilation (Garland, USA)

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Oscar Isaac is miscast but thinking-person’s sci-fi done large is always welcome and, for my money, this is a clear advance on Ex Machina for director Alex Garland.

16. Satan’s Slaves (Anwar, Indonesia)

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I’m grateful that Cinepocalypse brought this Indonesian horror film to the Music Box. It’s superior to Hereditary if only because the “Satanic” elements seem deeply rooted in the culture and religion of the characters and not just shoehorned in because the director is a fan of Rosemary’s Baby.

15. Future Language: The Dimensions of Von LMO (Felker, USA)

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Not just a music doc but also an impressive experimental movie crossed with a highly personal essay film. My capsule review at Time Out Chicago here.

14. Have You Seen My Movie? (Smith, UK)

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A clever and stimulating found-footage doc comprised of clips from other movies . . . in which people are watching movies. I discussed this on the inaugural episode of Cine-Cast, the Cine-File podcast, here.

13. Ismael’s Ghosts (Desplechin, France)

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This is Arnaud Desplechin’s worst film but it features Marion Cotillard dancing to the original Another Side of Bob Dylan version of “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” which elevates it to the status of essential viewing.

12. Savage Youth (Johnson, USA)

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Fascinating true-crime tale acted to perfection by a terrific young ensemble cast. I reviewed it for Time Out Chicago here and interviewed director Michael Curtis Johnson for Cine-File here.

11. The Green Fog (Maddin/Johnson/Johnson, USA)

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A hilarious and ingenious “remake” of Vertigo, which consists only of scenes from other movies and T.V. shows shot in San Francisco — though this won’t make a lick of sense if you don’t know Hitchcock’s masterpiece like the back of your hand.

10. Loveless (Zvyagintsev, Russia)

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Andrei Zvyagintsev’s damning indictment of Putin’s Russia disguised as a dour melodrama. Smart, exacting filmmaking.

9. Bisbee ’17 (Greene, USA)

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No American film this year feels more relevant than Robert Greene’s innovative doc about the U.S. government’s shameful deportation of recently unionized workers, many of them immigrants, from the title Arizona town 100 years ago. Capsule review at Time Out Chicago here.

8. Claire’s Camera (Hong, S. Korea/France)

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This was dismissed or damned with faint praise as lightweight Hong in some quarters but those critics are dead wrong. I wrote a capsule review of this great comedy for Time Out Chicago here.

7. First Reformed (Schrader, USA)

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I wrote on social media that I greatly enjoyed Paul Schrader’s “Protestant version of Diary of a Country Priest.” When asked by a friend to elaborate, I expounded: “Bresson has always been Schrader’s biggest influence and that influence is more pronounced in First Reformed than ever before. Some of the elements that can be traced back to Diary of a Country Priest specifically: the clergyman coming into conflict with his superiors for leading too ascetic a lifestyle, the way he bares his soul in his diary, his stomach cancer, his alcoholism, his search for grace in a superficial, material world, the austerity of the visual style, the transcendental uplift of the final scene, etc.”

6. Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc (Dumont, France)

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Bruno Dumont’s batshit-crazy electronic/metal musical about the childhood of Joan of Arc. I reviewed this for Cine-File here and discussed it on the inaugural episode of Cine-Cast, the Cine-File podcast, here.

5. The Woman Who Left (Diaz, Philippines)

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A companion piece to Lav Diaz’s earlier Norte: The End of History, this nearly 4-hour epic  — about a woman being released from prison after 30 years and searching for the man who framed her — has more intelligent things to say about “revenge” than all of Quentin Tarantino’s movies put together. Gorgeously shot in black-and-white and featuring a tremendous lead performance by Charo Santos-Concio (who came out of retirement to play the part).

4. Madeline’s Madeline (Decker, USA)

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A theater director asks a teenage actress to mine deeply personal emotional terrain – including the tumultuous relationship she has with her own mother – in order to workshop a new play. This wild and beautiful film, a quantum leap beyond Josephine Decker’s first two movies, cuts deep into the heart of the dubious emotional exploitation inherent in all director/actor relationships. Imagine Mulholland Drive from a truly female perspective and you’ll have some idea of what Decker is up to — but this exhilarating film looks and sounds like nothing else. Helena Howard should go down as a cinematic immortal for this even if she never acts in another film.

3. Phantom Thread (Anderson, USA/UK)

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PTA’s most perfect (though not greatest) film. I loved it as much as everyone and reviewed it for this very blog when it belatedly opened in Chicago in January. Capsule here.

2. 24 Frames (Kiarostami, Iran)

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Abbas Kiarostami’s final film — and final masterpiece — contains the most innovative use of CGI I’ve ever seen. Capsule review at Time Out Chicago here.

1. Zama (Martel, Argentina)

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Lucrecia Martel’s long-awaited return confronts colonialism and racism in 18th-century Argentina in a most daring and original way: by focusing on an entirely unexceptional man. It is also so radical and masterful in its approach to image and sound that it turns viewers into aliens (to paraphrase something Martel said to me in an interview, which you can read at Time Out Chicago here).


Bresson on Blu x 2

Q: Here (in Mouchette) and in Balthazar one senses a new fascination with pain.

A: Perhaps because I feel that pain must be acknowledged no less than happiness.

— Robert Bresson interviewed by Charles Thomas Samuels in 1970

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Newly released on Blu-ray — by Artificial Eye and the Criterion Collection, respectively — are two of French director Robert Bresson’s greatest achievements: Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) and Mouchette (1967). Perhaps strangely, I had never thought of these ascetic masterpieces as being companion pieces, in spite of the short timespan in which they were made, until watching these Blu-rays in quick succession. Indeed, they represent the only time in Bresson’s 50-year career that he ever made two movies in consecutive years. Taken together, they show the filmmaker at a crucial transitional point in his evolution as an artist — more specifically, at the tail end of his middle period and just before the beginning of his great late period. Au Hasard Balthasar and Mouchette mark the last times Bresson would shoot on black-and-white film stock (to the chagrin of some of his admirers) as well as the last time he would use non-diegetic music on his soundtracks — a Schubert piano sonata in the former, Monteverdi’s Magnificat in the latter. (When Bresson transitioned into making films in color, his already-minimalist aesthetic would become even further refined to include only the barest essentials of what he needed in terms of image and sound.) The two movies even share a screen presence, Jean-Claude Guilbert, the only time Bresson ever cast the same “model” in a substantial role more than once. But Au Hasard Balthazar and Mouchette have deeper affinities in their approach to characterization and theme: both center on the plight of innocent “holy-fool” characters (a donkey and a 14-year-old girl, respectively) in worlds otherwise distinguished by an overwhelming human evil.

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Many of Bresson’s admirers cite Au Hasard Balthazar as his single greatest achievement and it’s not hard to see why. In many ways it’s the most ambitious and expansive movie he ever made (Jean-Luc Godard called it, with little hyperbole, “the world in an hour-and-a-half”). Based on an original screenplay, as opposed to a short story or a novel like most of his other work, Balthazar tells the story of the life and death of the title character, a donkey, in provincial France. As the animal — Bresson’s ultimate “non-actor” — is passed from one owner to the next over a span of many years, he becomes a kind of blank slate upon which the sins of mankind are imprinted: his owners inflict physical abuse on him and exhibit such unsavory characteristics as avarice, lust, drunkenness, etc. All the while, Balthazar looks on, silently and without judgement. But Bresson intriguingly expands the scope of this narrative by telling the parallel story of Marie (Anne Wiazemsky in her screen debut), a teenage girl and the daughter of one of Balthazar’s owners, who is led astray by local bad-boy/Satan-figure Gerard (François Lafarge). As the story progresses in a fashion unusually elliptical even for this director, the poetic use of parallel editing makes it seem as if the fates of the girl and the donkey are inextricably intertwined. The final scene, which depicts a kind of miracle, is arguably the most moving scene in Bresson’s oeuvre, a feat that is all the more impressive given that it does not involve human actors.

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Mouchette is an adaptation of a novel by Georges Bernanos (who also provided the source material for Bresson’s breakthrough feature, The Diary of a Country Priest, in 1951). When asked why he chose to adapt Bernanos a second time, he claimed “they” had been asking him to do it for 10 years and that, more importantly, he felt like making another movie but didn’t want to take the time to write an original script. While these comments might indicate that the end result is somehow slighter or less personal than Au Hasard Balthazar, this follow-up freature, which won the top prize at the Venice International Film Festival, is major Bresson. I would also argue it is a more lucid, pure and emotionally affecting work than his more celebrated previous Bernanos adaptation. Nadine Nortier, in her only film role to date, is an extraordinary screen presence as the title heroine, a poor, rural teenage girl who is consistently let down or betrayed by the adults around her: her alcoholic father, her bedridden mother, her unfairly strict teacher and a local poacher who repays the girl’s kindness by raping her. Solace comes only in fleeting moments: walking alone through the woods, riding the bumper cars at a traveling carnival, the chance to comfort her infant sister, etc. As in Balthazar, the film’s impact is shattering because of Bresson’s unique ability to elicit empathy for a marginalized protagonist while also ruthlessly avoiding sentimentality. And, while equating his protagonist with hunted animals suggests the influence of Jean Renoir and The Rules of the Game, Mouchette would itself prove to be a major influence on other filmmakers, most notably the Dardenne brothers in their 1999 film Rosetta.

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The Mouchette Blu-ray can be purchased from Amazon.co.uk here. The Au Hazard Balthazar Blu-ray can be purchased from Amazon here.


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