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Tag Archives: Jean Vigo

A Silent French Cinema Primer

Following my French cinema primers covering the Nouvelle Vague and the pre-Nouvelle Vague sound era, today’s post covers what I think are the most essential French movies of the silent era. Although I normally only write about feature films in these primers, I’m going to make an exception for this one so that I can cover some of the most influential French films of the era.

Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (Lumieres, France, 1896)

Bertrand Tavernier has referred to this Lumiere Brothers masterpiece as the “first horror movie” because, as legend has it, early audiences reacted to the image of a train moving towards the camera by fleeing in terror. This is a simple “actuality” that depicts just what the title states in a single shot lasting approximately 42 seconds. But it’s also a good example of how well made the Lumiere Brothers’ films were: the dramatic contrast of the black and white cinematography, coupled with the diagonal perspective of the composition, makes the film an aesthetically pleasing experience even when viewed today. It can be seen in its entirety on YouTube by clicking the image above.

A Trip to the Moon (Melies, France, 1902)

Georges Melies was the polar opposite of the Lumieres; he made narrative films in the fantasy genre that showcased trick photography and special effects. He also shot all of his movies in an ingeniously constructed glass-walled studio in Paris. Melies’ most famous film is A Trip to the Moon, a 14-minute sci-fi adventure about astronomers making a maiden moon voyage, where they do battle with the moon’s alien inhabitants before triumphantly returning to earth. This gained renewed fame when it became a major reference point in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo and was subsequently re-released in a splendidly restored color version. I’m including a link to a YouTube video above but please note that the image quality here is far inferior to what you will find on the magnificent Flicker Alley blu-ray released earlier this year.

The Life of Christ (AKA The Birth, the Life and the Death of Christ) (Guy, France, 1906)

Alice Guy, a true movie pioneer, began her directing career in 1896 and is sometimes credited as the first person to make a narrative film (as opposed to Lumiere-style actualities). A DVD compilation of her work released by Kino in 2009 is a revelation: it contains stunt comedies, panoramic views of exotic places, and fascinating early experiments with sound and color. My favorite of her films that I’ve seen is The Life of Christ, which recounts “the greatest story ever told” in 25 single-shot tableaux-like scenes that, at 33 minutes, made it relatively epic in 1906. Especially effective is the climactic resurrection, which is bolstered by a beautiful score on Kino’s DVD. This is my second favorite Jesus movie after Pasolini’s.

A Child of Paris (Perret, France, 1913)

Also included in Kino’s “Gaumont Treasures” DVD set is a an entire platter devoted to Leonce Perret, an important director previously unknown in the States. The major revelation of the set is A Child of Paris, a feature film from 1913 that is shockingly sophisticated in terms of its cinematography (including the kind of camera movements and oblique compositions that wouldn’t become commonplace for years to come). The Dickensian story concerns a little girl who becomes an orphan, is sent to a boarding school, runs away and then is kidnapped by a gang of thieves. The acting is surprisingly naturalistic for the time and the use of real locations – in Paris and Nice – is impressive in the extreme.

Les Vampires (Feuillade, 1915-1916)

The brilliant, prolific Louis Feuillade directed over 600 movies, many of them multi-part serials, before his death at 52. Les Vampires, which is not about vampires but rather a gang of nocturnal thieves who call themselves “The Vampires,” is one of the highlights of his career. The leader of the gang is a woman named Irma Vep (played by the ferocious, outrageously sexy actress Musidora) who finds herself matching wits with ace newspaper reporter Philippe Guérande and his comical sidekick Oscar Mazamette. This was much beloved by the Surrealists for its evocation of an elaborate criminal network festering beneath the surface of mainstream bourgeois society as well as, one presumes, a capture-and-escape narrative loop structure that stands in opposition to the typical closure of Hollywood. Nearly a hundred years later, this 10 part mystery serial has lost none of its power to entertain for the entire duration of its nearly 7 hour running time.

Tih Minh (Feuillade, 1918)

Jacques d’Athys, a French adventurer, returns to his home in Nice after an expedition to Indochina where he has picked up a Eurasian fiancee and a book that, unbeknownst to him, contains a coded message revealing the whereabouts of both secret treasures and sensitive government intelligence. This makes him the target of foreign spies, including a Marquise of mysterious Latin origin, a Hindu hypnotist and an evil German doctor, who will stop at nothing to obtain the book. Louis Feuillade’s 12 chapter, 7 hour serial is overflowing with action, thrills, humor and romance, and is a strong contender for the title of the most purely entertaining movie that I have ever seen from any era.

Coeur Fidèle (Epstein, 1923)

My favorite French silent feature is Jean Epstein’s Impressionist masterpiece about a young woman, Marie, whose cruel foster parents force her into a marriage with an unemployed, alcoholic thug ironically named “Petit Paul.” Marie nonetheless continues to pine for her true love, Jean, a local dockworker. This romantic triangle is infused with sublime visuals from beginning to end (including a highly poetic use of superimpositions, rapid-fire cutting and close-ups) that make the film a crushing emotional experience when viewed today. The famous merry-go-round sequence, with its striking imagery and musical rhythms, is one of the glories of the silent cinema.

Ménilmontant (Kirsanoff, 1926)

Dmitri Kirsanoff’s astonishing 38 minute short is arguably the most modern-looking film produced anywhere in the silent era. The story, told without intertitles, revolves around two sisters who, as children living in a small town, tragically witness their parents being murdered. Then, Kirsanoff flashes forward to years later as both sisters are living in Paris and become involved with an evil seducer. But no plot description can do justice to the way Kirsanoff uses his camera like a paintbrush to capture images of incredible beauty and emotional depth. The film’s tempo ranges from fast, Soviet-style montage to a deliberately arty languorousness depending on the mood of the characters, and contributes to an atmosphere of almost unbearable intensity. Finally, there is the brilliantly understated lead performance of Nadia Sibirskaïa (Kirsanoff’s wife) who, in the film’s most celebrated scene, contemplates suicide before changing her mind when a complete stranger offers her bread in a public park. Ménilmontant is on my short list of near-perfect movies.

Napoléon (Gance, 1927)

First, I must confess to having only seen this on VHS tape in a controversial restoration overseen by Francis Ford Coppola that was both incomplete and transferred at the wrong speed. The arguably nationalistic and pro-militaristic content of the film also strikes me as somewhat dubious. But . . . as an insanely gargantuan, impossibly ambitious work of pure cinema, this has few equals. Gance’s film begins with Napoleon as a child engaging in a snowball fight at a military academy and proceeds through many visually astonishing episodes before climaxing, unforgettably, with a three-panelled widescreen sequence that shows Napoleon at the height of his powers invading Italy as the head of the French army. One of my fondest cinephiliac desires is that silent historian Kevin Brownlow’s most recent restoration, which has now swelled to five and a half hours, will make its way to blu-ray soon.

The Little Match Girl (Renoir, 1928)

Although it wasn’t until the sound era that Jean Renoir directed the films that made him immortal (e.g., Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game), I think The Little Match Girl, a 40 minute adaptation of a Hans Christian Anderson story, is one of his best and most affecting films. The title character is a waif forced to sell matches on the streets in the dead of winter in order to earn her livelihood. While literally freezing to death, the match girl looks through a toy store window and fantasizes that she is inside and that the toys have magically come to life all around her. The dream-like visuals and fantasy element are atypical for Renoir, the humanism is not.

The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer, 1928)

After a successful run of films in his native Denmark, Carl Dreyer headed to France for his last silent film, a beautiful dramatization of the life of the beloved saint. Instead of showing Joan’s heroism in battle the way you would expect a biopic to do, Dreyer focuses instead only on the last days of her life as she is tried and executed by an English court. The film’s most notable characteristic is its relentless use of extreme close-ups, which capture every wrinkle on the judges’ evil faces and every nuance of Renee Falconetti’s highly emotive performance in the title role, which remains one of the finest ever captured on celluloid.

Un Chien Andalou (Bunuel, 1929)

Luis Bunuel’s directorial debut, based on a script he co-wrote with Salvador Dali, is the most famous Surrealist movie ever – and for good reason. It opens with the shocking image of a man slicing a woman’s eyeball with a straight razor (a shot that is graphically matched with a cutaway image of a cloud drifting in front of the moon) before jumping ahead to “Eight Years Later” and focusing on a new set of characters in scenes that are equally bizarre. But, since Bunuel plays the man with the razor, the function of the prologue is obvious: to announce an all-out assault on the viewer, whose sight, after all, is the most important sense in experiencing a film. Bunuel and Dali’s rule when writing the screenplay was that Un Chien Andalou should be nonsensical to the point of not being interpretable; legions of critics and historians, including me, have ignored their intention ever since.

À propos de Nice (Vigo, 1930)

À propos de Nice is the exceptionally promising debut film of Jean Vigo, whose career was tragically curtailed four years later when he died of tuberculosis at age 29. This begins as a conventional “city symphony”-style travelogue of the title locations before expanding its scope to offer surreal stylistic flourishes and a satirical/critical view of Nice’s wealthy citizens. In 25 minutes, Vigo and his ace cinematographer Boris Kaufman offer up more ideas, visual invention and wit than what you see in most features; the slow-motion, low angled shots of women dancing are particularly memorable for their eroticism.

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Let’s Talk About Poetic Realism

Adrian Nambo, a former student of mine from Harold Washington College, asked to interview me on the topic of Poetic Realism for a paper he recently wrote for another class. Because our interview nicely coincided with my "Classic French Cinema" posts from last week, I thought I would post our interview here today as a kind of postscript.

AN: There isn’t really much said about Poetic Realism on Wikipedia (which is a horrible way to look things up anyway), but can you elaborate a little more on it?

MGS: Poetic Realism was a movement that existed in France in the early sound era. To paraphrase Bob Dylan, it is a movement that is easy to look at but hard to define. This is because the conventions aren’t as clear cut as those of, say, German Expressionism or Soviet Montage. Nonetheless, I would define the basic characteristics of Poetic Realism as a focus on working class characters and the theme of doomed love, the blending of comedy and tragedy, the use of long shots and long takes, and narratives that function as critiques of society.

AN: French Impressionism is an influence of Poetic Realism correct? What influences did it have on the movement (i.e. what techniques, stylizations, and subject matter did it contribute to Poetic Realism)?

MGS: Both Impressionism and Surrealism, which were avant-garde movements in France during the silent era, were big influences on Poetic Realism. Impressionism used stylized cinematography, optical effects and editing to render reality as it is subjectively perceived by the individual. Directors like Germaine Dulac, Jean Epstein and Dmitri Kirsanoff would use superimpositions and slow dissolves, or would shoot the reflection of a subject in a distorting mirror, in an attempt to show the inner lives of their characters. Surrealism, as in the early films of Luis Bunuel, was all about the aggressive use of bizarre, dreamlike imagery to subvert the conventions of Hollywood-style “narrative continuity” filmmaking.

The phrase “poetic realism” is kind of an oxymoron because we think of poetry as being the opposite of realism. That is to say, poetry uses the figurative language of metaphor to communicate thoughts and feelings that can’t be expressed in a straightforward way. Conversely, when we think of something as being “realistic,” we tend to think of something that is being communicated simply and directly. So the movement of Poetic Realism basically synthesizes these two different approaches. It takes the poetic innovations that we associate with Impressionism and Surrealism and then weds them to the more realistic style of narrative continuity filmmaking. To give you a concrete example of what I mean, Jean Vigo’s masterpiece L’atalante tells the story of the tribulations of a newlywed couple who spend their honeymoon on a barge delivering cargo along the Seine River. The film was shot entirely on location (with a lot of shots done on a real barge) and the milieu depicted is that of working class people. So there is an impressive quality of documentary-like realism to the film. But then there are also these very poetic interludes like the scene where the husband jumps into the river and sees his wife’s image superimposed all around him as he swims underwater. This incredibly poetic scene makes us identify with the husband’s emotions and Vigo does it purely through images.

AN: Some major figures were Pierre Chenal, Marcel Carne, Jacques Feyder and Jean Gremillion. Can you tell me a little bit more about them and their work?

MGS: Marcel Carne is the major director out of the ones you mentioned. He made these great atmospheric crime films in the late 30s like Port of Shadows and Le Jour se Leve (both of which star Jean Gabin). I’ve often said that the reason why the French film critics were the first to identify the new trend of “film noir” in America in the 40s is because they had already kind of done something similar a few years earlier. Carne’s masterpiece though is Children of Paradise from 1945. A lot of critics consider it the apotheosis of Poetic Realism and it’s a movie that everyone needs to see. It’s an epic tale of doomed love set in the world of the 19th century Parisian theater. It was made during the Nazi Occupation and there are all sorts of subversive aspects to the film where the Occupation is being criticized in an oblique, allegorical way. It’s sometimes called the French Gone with the Wind but I think that does it a disservice. It’s a better film than Gone with the Wind! Thankfully, it has just been re-released in theaters this year in a brand new restoration, which will also be released soon on DVD and blu-ray. You can read all about that here: http://criterioncast.com/2012/02/27/janus-films-to-tour-new-4k-restoration-of-marcel-carnes-children-of-paradise/

I don’t think that Chenal, Gremillon or Feyder are very important directors. They belong more to the “tradition of quality” that was much derided by a future generation of French film critics. To me, the other great directors of Poetic Realism are Jean Vigo (as I mentioned), Julien Duvivier, whose masterpiece is Pepe le Moko from 1937, and, of course, Jean Renoir.

AN: I know Jean Renoir is one of your preferred directors, can you tell me about him and his films?

MGS: Renoir is one of the greatest directors of all time. The films he made in the 1930s are just indescribably great: Boudu Saved From Drowning, La Chienne (which translates as “The Bitch”), The Crime of Monsieur Lange, La Bete Humaine and his two supreme masterpieces, Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game. As I wrote about those last two films elsewhere on my blog, “Renoir showed, allegorically but with great generosity of spirit, a Europe that was tragically and inexorably heading towards World War II. His use of long shots and long takes, abetted by an elegantly gliding camera, allow viewers to observe his characters from a critical distance even while the folly of their behavior makes them intensely relatable on a human scale.” He never judges his characters. They’re all flawed and they’re all likable. The Rules of the Game is like a Shakespeare play; it captures timeless truths about the workings of the human heart. I think it will be appreciated as long as movies are watched.

AN: In your class you had said that Jean Renoir is still seen as a Major Figure in film history, what influence has he had on films that filmmakers look back on?

MGS: Well, he’s one of those people whose influence is so pervasive that it’s almost invisible. But, for starters, Orson Welles was very much influenced by Renoir. A lot of the pioneering deep focus cinematography that Welles did in Citizen Kane was inspired by a similar use of depth staging that he saw in The Rules of the Game. And I think the depiction of war in Grand Illusion, in particular the blending of comedy and tragedy to highlight the absurdity of war, was a big influence on all subsequent war movies. Finally, I would just like to say that the adjective “humane” is the one that seems to be applied to Renoir more than any other and I think this is very apt. There are a lot of French movies, even today, that deal with extended families getting together for holidays or weekend-long parties that have this same quality and they seem to me to have their roots very much in The Rules of the Game. See for instance Olivier Assayas’ Summer Hours or Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale.

AN: What three films if you can name three, from this period do you think best represent the movement and why?

MGS: L’atalante (1934), The Rules of the Game (1939) and Children of Paradise (1945), for the reasons already cited above.

AN: What are your favorite characteristics and or techniques of this movement and why?

MGS: I love Renoir’s use of long takes and long shots. These are the “mise-en-scene” aesthetics that were famously championed by the critic Andre Bazin. Bazin thought that this style was the opposite of Soviet Montage, where the preference for rapid cutting was more conducive to propaganda and telling viewers what to think. Renoir has a lot going on in the foreground, middle-ground and background of his shots and, because he tends to hold his shots for a while without cutting, it gives viewers the freedom to kind of focus on whatever they want to. For instance, you can choose to look at a character in the foreground or one in the background. It’s like you’re “editing” the film yourself in your mind while watching it. This quality makes his films endlessly re-watchable for me.

AN: How did this movement influence Italian Neorealism and the French New Wave?

MGS: I think the focus on working class characters and the use of plots that revolve around social problems make Poetic Realism an influence on Italian Neorealism. (The key difference though is that the cinematography in Poetic Realism tends to be far more polished than the rawness of what you see in Neorealism.) The French New Wave was more obviously influenced by Poetic Realism. Remember that the directors of the New Wave started off as film critics and so they basically hero-worshipped the likes of Vigo and Renoir and explicitly quoted their films. (Truffaut’s 400 Blows, for instance, would be unthinkable without Vigo’s Zero de Conduite.) I would say that the New Wave directors were most influenced by how intensely cinematic and alive and personal the films of Poetic Realism are.

AN: Can you summarize real quick what Italian Neorealism and the French New Wave are if you haven’t already?

MGS: Italian Neorealism was a movement in post-war Italy where directors attempted to make films that were far more realistic, in terms of form and content, than what had ever been achieved before. The French New Wave was a movement of critics-turned-directors in France in the late 50s and early 60s who used filmmaking as a means of celebrating and critiquing the cinema itself. (That’s a bit reductive and simplistic but you said to “summarize real quick!”)

AN: Can characteristics of this movement be seen in film today? If so can you name a couple of modern films to reference from after that time period.

MGS: There isn’t much around today that looks like Poetic Realism. But, in addition to the French films I already cited above, I think that American directors as diverse as Alexander Payne (Sideways, The Descendants) and Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep, To Sleep With Anger) have been specifically influenced by Jean Renoir.

AN: Is there anything you would like to add that I may have forgotten to ask or mention?

MGS: See the restored Children of Paradise as soon as you have the chance. You will thank me for it.


A Classic French Cinema Primer, pt. 1: Beyond the “Tradition of Quality”

The pre-Nouvelle Vague French cinema remains unjustly neglected in a lot of critical and cinephile quarters today, in part due to the contempt shown for it by the Nouvelle Vague directors when they were still critics for Cahiers du Cinema in the 1950s. Francois Truffaut’s famous dismissal of the French cinema’s “tradition of quality,” which he contrasted with the more ostensibly personal and cinematic films coming out of Hollywood during the same period, has given an unfortunate and lasting impression that French cinema in the early sound era was a barren field. I would argue that, since the birth of the movies, France has consistently been one of the three greatest film producing nations – along with the United States and Japan. This list, which encompasses the early sound era through the birth of the New Wave (a separate silent French cinema primer will be posted in the future) is meant to spotlight just a few of the most essential and exciting French movies made during this period.

The list will be broken into two parts. Today’s post encompasses the years 1930 – 1945. Part two, to be published later this week, encompasses 1946 – 1959. As a self-imposed, arbitrary rule, each half of the list will contain no more than two films by the same director.

L’age d’Or (Bunuel, 1930)

Luis Bunuel’s first feature-length film is this hilarious Surrealist portrait of a man and a woman who repeatedly attempt to get together and have sex but are continually prevented from doing so by members of respectable bourgeois society. This is full of famously bizarre images, which still retain their awesome, funny, unsettling power today: a woman shoos a full grown cow off of the bed in her upper-class home, a groundskeeper arbitrarily shoots his son, a woman lasciviously sucks on the toe of a statue, a man throws various objects, including a burning tree, a bishop and a giraffe, out of a second story window. Like a lot of great works of Surrealist art, this was deliberately meant to counter the rising tide of fascism that was sweeping across Europe at the time.

Marius (Korda, 1931)

The first and best installment of Marcel Pagnol’s “Fanny Trilogy” (followed by Cesar and Fanny) is a sweet comedy/melodrama about the goings on in a Marseilles port-side bar. Marius is a young man who manages the bar owned by his father Cesar. He has an affair with local girl Fanny who, holding out hope for a marriage proposal, turns down the hand of the older, wealthier Monsieur Panisse. But, alas, like the song says, Marius’ life, love and lady is the sea. Hungarian born director Alexander Korda does a wonderful job of “opening up” Pagnol’s play, making a deft use of real Marseilles locations. Charges that the movie is “filmed theater” are misguided; Pagnol and Korda’s very subject is the theatricality inherent in human nature.

A Nous la Liberte (Clair, 1931)

Mostly known today as the inspiration for Chaplin’s Modern Times, Rene Clair’s classic comedy follows the exploits of two escaped cons, one of whom becomes a factory owner and one of whom becomes a worker in the same factory. Is there any real difference, Clair asks, between a prisoner and a lowly factory worker? The equation between capitalism and criminality is a bit heavy handed but this is never less than a total visual delight, from the slapstick humor to Lazare Meerson’s stunning Expressionist-influenced art direction (which, atypical for a “foreign film” of the time, received an Oscar nomination).

Zero de Conduite (Vigo, 1933)

Jean Vigo’s penultimate film, an unforgettable tribute to the anarchic spirt of youth, documents the rebellion of four pre-adolescent boarding school students and is based on the director’s own childhood memories. Vigo was way ahead of his time in blending experimental filmmaking techniques with narrative storytelling (check out the poetic use of slow motion during the pillow fight scene) and the end result is beautiful, strange, beguiling and unmissable.

L’atalante (Vigo, 1934)

L’atalante tells the story of a newly married couple, a barge captain and his provincial wife, and their tumultuous honeymoon-cum-cargo delivery trip along the Seine river. The simple boy-meets-girl/boy-loses-girl/boy-finds-girl plot is merely an excuse for director Jean Vigo and ace cinematographer Boris Kaufman to serve up an array of rapturously photographed images, all of which correspond to the emotions of his protagonists. In a legendary supporting role, Michel Simon’s portrayal of a tattooed, cat-loving first mate is as endearing as it is hilarious. Vigo’s final film is one of the cinema’s transcendental glories – endlessly rewatchable, always uplifting.

Grand Illusion (Renoir, 1937)

Grand Illusion is a comedy and a drama, a war movie and a prison break film and, finally, thanks to an 11th hour appearance by the lovely Dita Parlo, a very touching love story. There is also a healthy dose of social criticism in the story of an aristocratic German Captain (memorably played by Erich von Stroheim) who shows favoritism to an upper class French captive, indicating that the bonds of class can sometimes be tighter than those of nationality. But this is just one of many examples of Renoir explicating the “arbitrary borders” made by man in one of the few films that deserves to be called a true anti-war movie.

The Pearls of the Crown (Guitry)

In this witty, innovative, trilingual take on the history film, three narrators – an Italian, an Englishman and a Frenchman – each tell the story of how four pear-shaped pearls ended up in the British crown. Writer/director Sacha Guitry manages, in a head-spinning hour and forty one minutes, to trace the pearls from one owner to the next over five hundred years of European history, allowing hilarious cameos by famous figures like Pope Clement VII, Catherine de Medici, Henry VIII, Queen Elizabeth, Mary Stuart, Napolean and Queen Victoria. But in a movie whose real subjects are language and storytelling the pearls themselves are nothing more than a MacGuffin. Guitry himself plays the French narrator as well as three other characters in the flashback sequences; as he wryly notes, “We always lend our faces to the heroes of the story.”

Pepe le Moko (Duvivier, 1937)

One reason why French film critics were so quick to identify and appreciate American film noir in the 1940s is because it distinctly resembled, tonally and visually, many of the great French crime films of the late 1930s. One such film is Julien Duvivier’s fatalistic Pepe le Moko, the story of a charismatic Parisian gangster (wonderfully played by Jean Gabin) hiding out in the Algiers’ Casbah, and the police inspector who attempts to reel him in. Algiers, an equally interesting Hollywood remake with Charles Boyer and Hedy Lamarr, followed just one year later.

Le Jour se Leve (Carne, 1939)

One of the high water marks of the movement known as Poetic Realism (under which many of the titles immediately preceding and following it on this list also fall), Le Jour se Leve has it all: working class characters – with Jean Gabin as the doomed hero and Arletty as his love interest, atmospheric locations, a tragic crime plot, poetic dialogue by Jacques Prevert, and taut direction by Marcel Carne. Also like a ton of great French films of the era, this was soon banned by the Vichy government on the grounds that it was “demoralizing.” Maybe so but sometimes hopelessness can be romantic too.

The Rules of the Game (Renoir, 1939)

This is Jean Renoir’s masterpiece and the grandaddy of all films about an assortment of friends and couples getting together for a weekend-long party in the country. The “rules of the game” are the rules one must abide by in order to get along in society, which involves a considerable amount of dishonesty. Fittingly, the one character who is incapable of lying, the earnest, heart-on-his-sleeve aviator Andre, is also the character who dies “like an animal in the hunt.” Like the best works of Shakespeare or Chekhov, this humanist tragicomedy captures timeless truths about the inner workings of the human heart.

Le Corbeau (Clouzot, 1943)

A series of anonymously written poison-pen letters are sent to various prominent citizens of a small French village. Chief among the targets of “The Raven,” the mysterious author’s pseudonym, is a doctor who is accused of adultery and performing illegal abortions. Both rumors and hidden secrets are brought to light by the letters, which threaten to tear the fabric of the community apart. Director Henri-Georges Clouzot made this for a German production company during the Nazi occupation of France. Sensing that the movie in some way allegorized them, the Nazis promptly fired Clouzot and banned the film. When the occupation ended, Clouzot was prohibited from making movies for an additional two years by the French government because he had collaborated with the Nazis! The director would go on to achieve much greater fame for The Wages of Fear and Les Diaboliques in the 1950s but this refreshingly dark and bitter thriller, a film far nastier than its Hollywood counterparts of the time, remains my personal favorite.

Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (Bresson, 1945)

Robert Bresson’s second film features star performances (most notably a ferocious turn by Maria Cesares), an original diegetic musical score and relatively ornate dialogue written by none other than Jean Cocteau – all elements the director would soon eschew in the major movies for which he became best known. But Les Dames du Bois de Bolougne is still a terrific and very Bressonian film about a woman who hatches a revenge plot against her ex-lover that involves arranging a marriage between him and a prostitute. The timeless, dream-like atmosphere is alluring (the story takes place in the present but feels as if it could be taking place in the 19th century) and the ambiguously redemptive ending packs a wallop precisely because of Bresson’s de-dramatized treatment.

Les Enfants du Paradis (Carne, 1945)

The pinnacle of the Marcel Carne/Jacques Prevert collaborations is this epic tale of doomed love set in the world of 19th century Parisian theater. Baptiste is a mime who falls in love with aspiring actress Garance. His shyness prevents their affair from being consummated and they go their separate ways until, years later, fate brings them back together for one last shot at romance. Both the behind the scenes look at theater and the depiction of 19th century France are lovingly detailed and passionately executed. This is sometimes referred to as a French Gone with the Wind but it’s actually much better than even that would suggest. One of the all-time great French movies.


Top Ten Home Video Releases of 2011

2011 didn’t see me go on quite the same insane Blu-ray buying spree that last year did. Perhaps the fascination of watching movies, new and old, in the bold new HD format has started to wear off a little. But mostly I think this was because I made a short film myself this year, which of course sucked up a lot of my time, energy and money. Therefore, I’m including a list of “only” my top thirty-five favorite home video releases (as opposed to last year’s fifty) — comprised of a countdown of the top ten, each with a capsule review, and an alphabetical list of an additional 25 runners-up. As with last year, the rankings were arrived at by averaging out what I estimated to be the overall quality of the film, the quality of the image/sound transfer and the quality of the supplements. In the interest of diversity, I also limited myself to one film per distributor for my top ten.

Any videophiles reading this should feel free to chime in with their own favorites in the comments section below.

10. Our Hospitality (Keaton, Kino Blu-ray)

Kino unleashed a hi-def Buster Keaton motherlode in 2011 — including a three-disc short films collection spanning the years 1920 – 1923, a double bill of Battling Butler and Go West and my personal favorite of the great clown’s works, 1923’s uproariously funny Our Hospitality. This inexhaustibly re-watchable stunt-filled comedy sees Keaton’s Willie McKay travel from New York to the rural south to claim an inheritance, unaware that he will soon be embroiled in both a romance and a Hatfield/McCoy-style feud. This is presented in an interlaced transfer (meaning “combing” is occasionally visible) in order to maintain the original speed at which the film was shot and the running time at which it was originally projected. (Although Kino, unlike Masters of Cinema with Coeur Fidele, could have released a superior, progressive-scan version if they had been willing to put in a lot of extra work). Still, this is the best Our Hospitality has ever looked on home video and I was particularly delighted to see it color-tinted for the first time.

9. The Terrorizers (Yang, Sony Pictures Blu-ray)

The most underrated title of the year — one that I didn’t even see rate a mention on the most popular Blu-ray review sites — is Sony’s Taiwanese release of Edward Yang’s 1986 masterpiece The Terrorizers, a terrific metaphysical mystery about the lives of three couples in Taipei that continually intersect over a span of several weeks. Yang is sometimes referred to as the “Chinese Antonioni” and if his debut That Day On the Beach is his L’avventura, then this more ambitious follow up is his Blow Up — a film with a surface thriller plot that is less important than the tantalizing questions regarding the connections between life and narrative at its core. I’ve never seen this movie in any other incarnation but Sony’s 1080i transfer is at least as impressive as their release of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Dust in the Wind from last year. The lush “1980s” color palette looks especially nice.

8. An Affair to Remember (McCarey, 20th Century Fox Blu-ray)

Leo McCarey’s final masterpiece charts the unlikely romance between a millionaire playboy (Cary Grant) and a night club singer (Deborah Kerr) who fall for each other on a cruise in spite of being engaged to other people. Wrongly labelled a saccharine “women’s weepie” (damn you, Sleepless in Seattle!), this actually starts off as a very funny screwball comedy (note the incredibly witty banter between Grant and Kerr on the boat) before gradually shifting to a sublime Frank Borzage-style romantic melodrama in its second half. But even the word “melodrama,” while apt in the literal sense, feels inappropriate for a film that can be as surprisingly delicate and understated as this. Written, directed and acted to perfection, this is as moving as movies get. Fox’s hi-def transfer of the original Technicolor elements is pleasing and true.

7. Jackie Brown (Tarantino, Lionsgate Blu-ray)

At the time it was released, many felt that this didn’t live up to the expectations generated by the phenomenal success of Quentin Tarantino’s previous outing, Pulp Fiction, from three years earlier. Today, Jackie Brown, a low-key adaptation of an Elmore Leonard crime novel about a flight attendant’s attempt to beat a money-smuggling rap, looks like the better movie. It’s an intricately plotted yarn that masks its complexity with relaxed pacing, delicious dialogue and the warm affection that Tarantino extends to all of his characters. And there are career best performances from Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Forster and Pam Grier. Shot by the great Guillermo Navarro, this exercise in retro-70s cool looks and sounds (The Delfonics!) better than ever on Lionsgate’s extras-laden Blu-ray. Did I mention you can get this on Amazon for just $10.99?

6. Certified Copy (Kiarostami, Artificial Eye Blu-ray)

The Criterion Collection owns the U.S. home video rights to Abbas Kiarostami’s latest and greatest but have apparently decided to sit on it until at least 2012. Therefore, I’m exceedingly grateful to the U.K. label Artificial Eye for putting out this region-free Blu-ray and letting me have a chance to revisit my favorite theatrical film of 2011. Upon further viewing, I’m less convinced this is any sort of “puzzle film” at all but rather an allegory about the difficulty of communication between Man and Woman (as embodied by William Shimell and Juliette Binoche) in the modern world. Shot on the RED One camera, the digital-to-digital transfer done for this disc is unimpeachable. Also contains a fascinating, feature-length making-of doc, Let’s See Copia Conforme. A special thank you to Jessica for the gift.

5. L’Age d’Or / Un Chien Andalou (Bunuel, BFI Blu-ray)

Luis Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou and his feature length follow-up L’age d’Or, arguably the two most important Surrealist films of all time, were never intended to look or sound all that pristine. In fact, their technical crudity is just one of the strategies Bunuel implemented to intentionally piss off his original audience. Nonetheless, these delirious sex-and-death obsessed fever dreams, full of hilarious, provocative digressions and repeated attacks on both church and state, look and sound better than I ever thought possible. Even the damage caused by the ravages of time is more visible due to BFI’s impressive 1080p transfer — and I have a feeling that’s just the way Don Luis would’ve wanted it. “Slicin’ up eyeballs, oh-ho-ho-ho-ho!” L’age d’Or essay here.

4. The Strange Case of Angelica (de Oliveira, Cinema Guild Blu-ray)

The brilliant Portugese director Manoel de Oliveira makes his hi-def debut with this incredible package from Cinema Guild that contains both his very first film, 1931’s Douro, Faina Fluvial as well as his most recent, 2010’s The Strange Case of Angelica. The earlier movie is an extremely impressive, fast-paced avant-garde documentary short about working class life in Porto (Oliveira’s hometown) while the latter is a slow, stately CGI-buttressed masterpiece about a photographer who falls in love with a beautiful but inconveniently dead young woman after being commissioned by her family to photograph the corpse. It’s no exaggeration to say that, taken together, these films, made 80 years apart, contain the totality of cinema.

3. The Complete Jean Vigo Collection (Vigo, Criterion Blu-ray)

As with BFI’s Bunuel release, Criterion has seemingly done the impossible by taking Jean Vigo’s beloved films of the late silent/early sound era, which have been kicking around forever in poor quality versions, and managed to make them look sparkling and fresh and new. L’atalante in particular is a revelation; it has always been the most modern-looking movie of its era because of its unabashed eroticism as well as its incredibly striking sense of composition (courtesy of ace cinematographer Boris Kaufman). Rounding out the set are all of Vigo’s other movies: Taris (a short experimental documentary about a swimmer), A Propos de Nice (one of the most poetic and playful of all city symphony films) and his immortal tribute to anarchic youth, Zero de Conduite. Vigo was a visionary genius who left this world far too soon. But his films will live forever and, thanks to Criterion, can now be readily experienced under the optimum conditions they should be. L’atalante essay here.

2. Citizen Kane 70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition (Welles, Warner Bros. Blu-ray)

Citizen Kane finally gets the home video treatment it deserves courtesy of Warner Bros.’ staggeringly elaborate new box set, which includes by far the most film-like (and thus best ever) presentation it has seen in terms of image and sound. It also includes a handsomely-produced hardback book about the making of the film, postcards, an excellent quality DVD of Welles’ follow-up The Magnificent Ambersons (its North American digital debut) and a whole host of other goodies that I won’t be able to finish going through until probably late into 2012. To paraphrase Mr. Thatcher, I wish I were a little boy watching this movie for the first time in this particular edition! Full review here.

1. Coeur Fidele (Epstein, Eureka/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)

Jean Epstein’s Impressionist classic from 1923 is the midway point between the Victorian melodrama of D.W. Griffith and the Surrealist-inflected romance of Jean Vigo’s L’atalante. The plot concerns a love triangle between working class characters but it’s the rapturously beautiful cinematography and poetic use of dissolves — most notably during the famous “carousel sequence” — that lift this movie up to heaven’s door. Masters of Cinema’s glorious HD transfer (which involved painstaking work to ensure that the film would run at the correct speed) of Gaumont’s impeccable photochemical restoration makes this my favorite Blu-ray release not just of the year but of all time. Discovering a major masterpiece like this just when I thought I’d seen it all is the kind of thing that makes life worth living.

Runners-Up (alphabetical by title)

11. All About Eve (Mankiewicz, 20th Century Fox Blu-ray)
12. Army of Shadows (Melville, Criterion Blu-ray)
13. An Autumn Afternoon / A Hen in the Wind (Ozu, BFI Blu-ray)
14. Equinox Flower / There Was a Father (Ozu, BFI Blu-ray)
15. Good Morning / I Was Born But . . . (Ozu, BFI Blu-ray)
16. The Horse Soldiers (Ford, MGM Blu-ray)
17. The Lady Vanishes (Hitchcock, Criterion Blu-ray)
18. Late Autumn / A Mother Should Be Loved (Ozu, BFI Blu-ray)
19. Meet Me in St. Louis (Minnelli, Warner Bros. Blu-ray)
20. The Naked Kiss (Fuller, Criterion Blu-ray) Full review here.
21. Once Upon a Time in the West (Leone, Paramount Blu-ray)
22. People On Sunday (Ulmer/Siodmak, Criterion Blu-ray)
23. The Phantom Carriage (Sjostrom, Criterion Blu-ray)
24. Pulp Fiction (Tarantino, Lionsgate Blu-ray)
25. The Rules of the Game (Renoir, Criterion Blu-ray) Essay here.
26. Senso (Visconti, Criterion Blu-ray)
27. Shock Corridor (Fuller, Criterion Blu-ray) Full review here.
28. The Social Network (Fincher, Sony Pictures Blu-ray) More here.
29. Solaris (Tarkovsky, Criterion Blu-ray) Full review here.
30. Some Like it Hot (Wilder, MGM Blu-ray)
31. The Stranger (Welles, HD Cinema Classics Blu-ray)
32. Taxi Driver (Scorsese, Sony Blu-ray)
33. Touch of Evil (Welles, Eureka/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)
34. Way Down East (Griffith, Kino Blu-ray) Full review here.
35. Yi Yi (Yang, Criterion Blu-ray)


Vigo’s Valentine

In honor of Valentine’s Day, today’s post concerns one of my favorite cinematic love stories – Jean Vigo’s L’atalante from 1934.

Jean Vigo was the James Dean of movie directors: he lived fast, he died young (of tuberculosis at 29), and he left – if not a beautiful corpse – then at least a beautiful body of work. This includes three short films (A Propos de Nice, Taris – Roi de l’eau and Zero de Conduite) and one feature, L’atalante. All of this work was done in a span of just five years, from 1929 to 1934, and constitutes a total running time of less than three hours. Yet Vigo’s status as a cinematic immortal is ensured – in large part due to L’atalante, one of the most ecstatic hymns to romantic love ever to grace the silver screen.

L’atalante opens with the marriage of a young couple in a provincial French town: Jean (Jean Daste) is the well-traveled captain of the barge L’atalante, Juliette (Dita Parlo) is a naïve young woman who has always lived with her parents and knows nothing of the world outside of their hometown. Since the couple has barely had the chance to get acquainted, their relationship will be tested as they travel down the Seine river from Le Havre to Paris on an expedient honeymoon/cargo delivery trip. The other central character in this romantic drama is the most unforgettable – Pere Jules (character actor Michel Simon in a legendary performance), an eccentric, heavily tattooed, cat-loving first mate, whose conversations with Juliette provoke the first tensions in the newlyweds’ marriage. This foreshadows the more serious rift that will occur when the barge arrives in Paris and Juliette runs off, seduced by the City of Light.

L’atalante is often considered a work of “Poetic Realism,” a loosely defined movement of French films from the 1930s that took the poetic innovations of avant-garde movements such as Surrealism and Impressionism and wedded them to the conventions of narrative continuity filmmaking (the “invisible” style of Hollywood), thereby making them more accessible to mainstream audiences. The key filmmakers of Poetic Realism include Jean Renoir, Marcel Carne and Julien Duvivier. But even among this esteemed company, Vigo was a man apart, a visual poet who attempted to stuff his movies with as many rhapsodic and lyrical passages as possible.

Examples of some of the intoxicating imagery from L’atalante: early in the film, Juliette tells Jean she had seen a vision of him before they ever met by plunging her face into water – thus knowing he would be her “true love.” After she runs away, Jean falls into despair. But mindful of her story, he jumps into a canal and, in a series of sumptuously photographed underwater images, sees Juliette in her wedding dress superimposed everywhere around him. Later, Juliette and Jean spend their first night as a married couple apart. As they lie in separate beds in different parts of town, Vigo makes us feel their painful romantic longing by intercutting between overhead shots of the two of them. Not only is the framing and positioning of the actors similar in each shot, Vigo boldly lights both locations in a similarly stylized way: a mirrorball effect with tiny dots of shadow falling on each character. Then, in an exquisite series of shots, Jean and Juliette begin to slowly kiss and caress their own bodies, their movements eroticized by Vigo’s use of dissolves and slow motion cinematography.

Once seen, the sadness of this separated couple will never be forgotten. Because of the painful nature of their conflict, which is predicated on Jean’s jealousy and quick temper, their eventual reunion is made all the sweeter. Fittingly, it is Jules who finds Juliette and leads her back to the barge. When she and Jean see each other, they embrace so passionately that they collapse together on the floor. It is our final image of them before Vigo cuts to an overhead shot of L’atalante sailing down the mighty, eternally flowing Seine. This sublime juxtaposition, which occurs as Maurice Jaubert’s memorable, poignant score reaches a crescendo on the soundtrack, is worthy of Frank Borzage in its suggestion of love as a transcendental force.

Much of the credit for the film’s intense beauty belongs to Boris Kaufman, the talented Russian cinematographer who was also the brother of Dziga-Vertov and Mikhail Kaufman (creators of Man with the Movie Camera). Boris went on to an illustrious career in Hollywood, eventually winning an Oscar for his work on On the Waterfront in 1954. But he always retained a special place in his heart for the work he did with Jean Vigo, going so far as to describe their relationship as “cinematic paradise.” This is a phrase that could apply not only to what went on behind the camera but to what they managed to capture in front of it as well.

The only Region 1 DVD of L’atalante was released by New Yorker Video in 2003 and is now out of print. It is rumored that the film will be released in new Blu-ray and DVD editions by the Criterion Collection later this year.


Top 25 Films of the 1930s

25. Alexander Nevsky (Eisenstein, Russia, 1938)

24. The Lady Vanishes (Hitchcock, UK, 1938)

It seems that 1935’s The 39 Steps has become the consensus pick for the masterpiece of Hitchcock’s British period but, while I do love that film unreservedly, I love this outrageously entertaining spy caper even more. While aboard a transcontinental train, Iris, a beautiful young Englishwoman, befriends Miss Froy, an elderly woman who mysteriously disappears. In a signature nightmarish paranoid plot, Hitchcock has all of the other passengers deny that Froy was ever on the train, which causes Iris to question her sanity. It’s up to Gilbert (Michael Redgrave in his screen debut), an unflappably witty ethnomusicologist, to help Iris get to the bottom of the mystery. This is one of Hitchcock’s most purely entertaining films, which is saying a lot, in part because of the colorful supporting players; I’m particularly fond of the hilarious slapstick brawl between Gilbert, Iris and a nefarious Italian magician. As someone who wore out his public domain VHS copy as a teenager, I am exceedingly grateful to the Criterion Collection for their impeccable 2011 Blu-ray.

23. Freaks (Browning, USA, 1932)

22. The Only Son (Ozu, Japan, 1936)

My favorite pre-war Yasujiro Ozu film is also his first sound movie, an exceedingly poignant story of the relationship between a single mother who slaves away in a silk factory to give her son the best possible education only to be disappointed when he doesn’t grow up to fulfill her lofty expectations. Exquisite direction, including a signature use of cutaways to seemingly random exteriors, nuanced performances and a simple, unsentimental plot combine for a unique and deeply moving experience.

21. Outskirts (Barnet, Russia, 1933)

Although active as a director until his death by suicide in 1965, Boris Barnet is probably best known for his silent film work (e.g., The Girl with the Hatbox and Miss Mend). Outskirts (AKA The Patriots) was Barnet’s first sound movie and remains an unjustly underseen masterpiece of its era. The film is a comedy/drama about the residents of an unnamed town in rural Russia in the days leading up to World War I. It starts off as a comedy that boasts a delightful and innovative use of sound (where animals and even inanimate objects are given voice) but becomes increasingly serious after the war breaks out. Most surprising of all is the tender love subplot that develops between a Russian peasant girl and a German POW. Hopefully, Outskirts will someday receive the loving home video release it deserves and become much better known among cinephiles.

20. Young Mr. Lincoln (Ford, USA, 1939)

19. Our Neighbor, Miss Yae (Shimazu, Japan, 1934)

The one and only film I’ve been able to track down by the esteemed Yasujiro Shimazu is this delightful comedy/drama about the friendship between two neighboring families set in contemporary suburban Japan. The plot concerns a love triangle between a law student who “looks like Frederic March” and the two sisters next door, one of whom is newly separated from her husband. In a lot of ways, this feels like the most modern (and westernized) Japanese movie of its era – the characters play baseball, watch a Betty Boop cartoon and engage in hilarious, flirtatious banter. The exchanges between the law student and the younger sister in particular (the Miss Yae of the title) are highly memorable and infectiously fun.

18. People on Sunday (Siodmak/Ulmer, Germany, 1930)

A remarkable documentary-like narrative film about a weekend in the life of ordinary Berliners, People on Sunday centers on five characters who are portrayed by non-actors with day-jobs similar to those of their counterparts in the story. The film is also fascinating in that it was made by a collective of young amateur filmmakers, all of whom would soon go on to notable careers in Hollywood: it was directed by brothers Curt and Robert Siodmak, Edgar Ulmer and Fred Zinnemann based on a script by Billy Wilder.

17. The Blue Angel (Von Sternberg, Germany, 1930)

The Blue Angel is notable for many reasons, including its status as the first German talkie and the film that launched Marlene Dietrich to international stardom. The story is reminiscent of Variety with Emil Jannings again playing a man who is driven to ruin by a treacherous woman, this time a cabaret singer of loose morals named Lola Lola (Dietrich at her most iconic). This was the only German-made film by Austrian director Josef von Sternberg.

16. Mr. Thank You (Shimizu, Japan, 1936)

Like Yasujiro Ozu, Hiroshi Shimizu was one of the top directors at Shochiku Studios in the 1930s – although his work was virtually unknown in the West until the 21st century. Mr. Thank You is an astonishing film about a bus driver known for his politeness who travels from town to town through rural Japan. It takes place virtually in real time and was shot on a real bus traveling through the countryside (no rear projection was used), which makes it an important stylistic precursor to both Italian Neorealism and the road movies of Abbas Kiarostami. Shimizu’s film is both universal (a bus journey as a metaphor for life – a series of sad, funny, ephemeral encounters between fellow travelers) and specifically rooted in Depression-era Japan (a woman sells her daughter into prostitution, a Korean laborer helps to build a road that she herself cannot afford to travel on by bus).

15. Vampyr (Dreyer, Germany, 1932)

14. L’age d’Or (Bunuel, France, 1930)

Luis Bunuel’s first feature-length film is also his first masterpiece, a hilarious Surrealist account of a man and a woman who repeatedly attempt to get together and have sex but are continually prevented from doing so by members of respectable bourgeois society. This is full of famous Surrealist images, which still retain their awesome, funny, unsettling power today: a woman shoos a full grown cow off of the bed in her upper-class home, a groundskeeper arbitrarily shoots his son, a woman lasciviously sucks on the toe of a statue, a man throws various objects, including a burning tree, a bishop and a giraffe, out of a second story window. Like a lot of great works of Surrealist art, this was deliberately meant to counter the rising tide of fascism that was sweeping across Europe at the time.

13. The Goddess (Wu, China, 1934)

12. Scarface: The Shame of a Nation (Hawks, USA, 1932)

11. Trouble in Paradise (Lubitsch, USA, 1932)

German emigre director Ernst Lubitsch inaugurated his mature period with this elegant, witty and sophisticated comedy about a love triangle between a master thief (Herbert Marshall), a female pickpocket (Miriam Hopkins) and the wealthy businesswoman they are both trying to fleece (Kay Francis). Not only a hilarious film but a very beautiful one; if you want to know what the famous “Lubitsch touch” is all about, this is the best place to start.

10. The Roaring Twenties (Walsh, USA, 1939)

The conventions of the gangster movie crystallized in the early ’30s with the release of The Public Enemy, Little Caesar and Scarface. By decade’s end, director Raoul Walsh and star James Cagney, both specialists in the genre, delivered the definitive gangster movie with this epic and nostalgic look back at the rise and fall of the bootlegging industry. The way the narrative of The Roaring Twenties continually opens up to situate its events within a wider social context (from the first World War to the stock market crash of ’29) would exert a major influence on Martin Scorsese. And, as the heavy, Humphrey Bogart is a match for Cagney made in tough guy movie heaven.

9. The Awful Truth (McCarey, USA, 1937)

awfultruth

8. City Lights (Chaplin, USA, 1931)

Charlie Chaplin had more success than any of the silent clowns in transitioning to the sound era – in part because he delayed doing so for as long as possible. City Lights was his last true silent and the penultimate outing of his beloved “Little Tramp” character. Here, the Tramp falls in love with a poor, blind flower girl who mistakenly believes him to be a rich man. Alternately funny and poignant in the best Chaplin tradition, this film also provides the best example of Chaplin’s still relatively unheralded genius as filmmaker: the only close-ups that occur in the entire film are in the final moments, which make them all the more impacting.

7. Earth (Dovzhenko, Ukraine, 1930)

My favorite Soviet film of the silent era is Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s Earth, whose slender narrative about the virtues of collective farming in the Ukraine is merely an excuse for the director to present a succession of rapturously beautiful painterly images: wheat fields waving in the wind, rain falling on fruit, a young woman standing next to a giant sunflower and a series of unforgettable faces that resemble paintings of religious icons. Dovzhenko got his start as a painter and cartoonist and his purely visual approach to storytelling would serve as a model for future Soviet directing greats Andrei Tarkovsky and Sergei Paradjanov.

6. The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (Mizoguchi, Japan, 1939)

The first major masterpiece of Kenji Mizoguchi’s career is this towering period drama about the taboo relationship between a wealthy young actor and his family’s wet nurse. The formal precision of Mizoguchi’s exquisitely calibrated camera movements, combined with his signature use of long takes and long shots (there are literally no close-ups in the movie), is perfectly suited to his twin themes of doomed love and female sacrifice. This may have been a routine melodrama in the hands of any other director but Mizoguchi, the consummate perfectionist, knew that his rigorous visual style would touch and elevate the viewer. The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums ranks alongside of Mizoguchi’s best post-war films (The Life of Oharu, Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff) as one of the greatest achievements in cinema.

5. Humanity and Paper Balloons (Yamanaka, Japan, 1937)

Sadao Yamanaka is considered a major figure in Japanese movies of the early sound era. He died tragically before reaching his thirtieth birthday and only three of the twenty-plus films he directed in his brief, prolific career survive today. This is cause for bitter regret because Humanity and Paper Balloons is probably my favorite Japanese movie of the entire pre-war era, a film I would rank ahead of the greatest early work of the more well-known directors on this list. Set in the Tokugawa era, this story of a kidnap and ransom plot across class lines is a jidai-geki (period piece) that feels like a gendai-geki (contemporary story). Indeed, it’s fascinating to see such an unromanticized view of the samurai class, which went against cinematic trends of the pre-war years. This flawlessly directed portrait of 18th century village life is alternately tragic and funny and brimming with unforgettable characters.

4. M (Lang, Germany, 1931)

My favorite German movie of all time is this police procedural/serial killer thriller based on the exploits of several real-life German murderers of the 1920s. M was Fritz Lang’s first sound film and his innovative use of dialogue, sound effects and music (the killer’s habitual whistling) was hugely influential on subsequent movies. This was also the screen debut of theatrical actor Peter Lorre, chilling and believable as the killer, who would soon follow his director in carving out a memorable Hollywood career.

3. L’atalante (Vigo, France, 1934)

L’atalante tells the story of a newly married couple, a barge captain and his provincial wife, and their tumultuous honeymoon-cum-cargo trip along the Seine river. The simple boy-meets-girl/boy-loses-girl/boy-finds-girl plot is merely an excuse for director Jean Vigo and ace cinematographer Boris Kaufman to serve up an array of rapturously photographed images, all of which correspond to the emotions of his protagonists. In a legendary supporting role, Michel Simon’s portrayal of a tattooed, cat-loving first mate is as endearing as it is hilarious. One of cinema’s transcendental glories – endlessly rewatchable, always uplifting.

2. The Rules of the Game (Renoir, France, 1939)

This is Jean Renoir’s masterpiece and the grandaddy of all films about an assortment of friends and lovers getting together for a weekend-long party in the country. The “rules of the game” are the rules one must abide by in order to get along in society, which involves a considerable amount of dishonesty. Fittingly, the one character who is incapable of lying, the earnest, heart-on-his-sleeve aviator Andre, is also the character who dies “like an animal in the hunt.” Like the best works of Shakespeare or Chekhov, this humanist tragicomedy captures timeless truths about the inner workings of the human heart.

1. City Girl (Murnau, USA, 1930)

F.W. Murnau’s final Hollywood movie was lost until the early 1970s, then seriously critically reappraised when excellent quality DVD and blu-ray versions appeared in the 21st century. The film charts the relationship between a young wheat farmer (Charles Farrell) and his city girl bride (Mary Duncan) through blissful courtship, disillusion with meddling in-laws and the austerity of farm life and, ultimately, hard-won and believable reconciliation. As with all of Murnau’s best work, documentary realism is combined with breathtaking and poetic flights of fancy: Farrell and Duncan’s “run through the wheat” is probably my favorite 30 seconds in any movie ever.


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