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Tag Archives: Life of Riley

Filmmaker of the Year: Alain Resnais

resnais

In February, 2014, mere weeks before his death, I told a film class at Oakton Community College that I considered Alain Resnais to be one of the world’s five best living filmmakers. The occasion was a screening of Last Year at Marienbad, which I introduced half-jokingly as the “arthouse version of Groundhog Day.” When Resnais died later that month, I elaborated on his considerable influence on narrative cinema on this very blog by writing: “Indeed, it is impossible for me to imagine what the past half-century of cinema would have looked like without him — the hotel-corridor tracking shots in The Shining; the nonlinear structures of early Tarantino; the narratives doubling back on themselves in Run Lola Run and Too Many Ways to Be Number One; the backwards storytelling of Peppermint Candy, Memento and Irreversible; the Cubist editing schemes of Upstream Color; and the entire filmography of Wong Kar-Wai, with its obsessive focus on the themes of time and memory. Would any of these things have been quite the same had Resnais’s formally innovative and groundbreaking films not come along first to provide a shining example?”

While it’s obviously true that the movies in general would not look quite the way they do today without Resnais’s enormous influence, I also suppose that my desire to chart that influence with so many specific examples from commercial films that were more popular than those made by Resnais himself showed a little defensiveness on my part. I felt it was unfortunate that Resnais’s movies seemed to be more read about than actually experienced and that he had accrued an unfair reputation, especially in America, for being a “cerebral” and “intellectual” filmmaker. Resnais had a great sense of humor and a love of pop culture that often went ignored in critical discussions of his work, which too often tended to focus only on his work in the 1960s, when he was affiliated with the “Left Bank” branch of the French New Wave. It is perhaps not surprising then that a newfound appreciation of Resnais’s work has materialized since his passing. The most obvious manifestation of this is the fact that a whopping five of the master director’s features, including the very first and very last, received their Blu-ray debuts in 2015:

Hiroshima Mon Amour (originally released 1959, Criterion Blu-ray released July 14, 2015)
Je t’aime, je t’aime (originally released 1968, Kino/Lorber Blu-ray released November 10, 2015)
Life is a Bed of Roses (originally released 1983, Cohen Media Blu-ray released July 21, 2015)
Love Unto Death (originally released 1984, Cohen Media Blu-ray released July 21, 2015)
Life of Riley (originally released 2014, Kino/Lorber Blu-ray released March 10, 2015)

hiroshima

To watch all five of these substantial movies in quick succession is to understand the evolution of Resnais’s career in miniature: Hiroshima Mon Amour, out now in a jaw-dropping new transfer from Criterion, was not only Resnais’s first feature but also one of the key early films of the French New Wave and arguably the birth of cinematic modernism. Based on a script by Marguerite Duras (one of the finest ever written), it begins with one of the most daring montages in all of cinema: Resnais cuts between close-ups of the sweat-soaked, naked bodies of two lovers entwined in bed with images of the atomic devastation in Hiroshima and its aftermath. The extensive use of first-person voice-over narration that accompanies these jarring juxtapositions immediately established Resnais as a filmmaker of uncommon subjectivity. Watching early Resnais is like wandering around inside of his characters’ brains — even if one is unsure of exactly which character that might be at any given moment. Are these indelible images of Hiroshima, for instance, objective flashbacks or are they the memories of the Japanese architect (Eiji Okada) who serves as the male lead? Or are they what the French actress (Emanuelle Riva), his lover, imagines happened inspired by the stories that he’s told her? Or is it some combination of all of these things? This profound ambiguity would be even more greatly elaborated on in Resnais’s next two features (Last Year at Marienbad and Muriel).

Je t’aime, je t’aime was, until recently, tragically difficult to see. I was therefore particularly grateful for Kino/Lorber’s splendid new Blu-ray release, which should allow Resnais’s fascinating excursion into the science-fiction genre to find the wider viewership it deserves. Ingeniously, Je t’aime, je t’aime uses a time-travel scenario as a potent metaphor for the situation of a brokenhearted and suicidal man (Claude Rich), the guinea pig of a scientific experiment a la La Jetee, who is sifting through his memories and wondering where his most significant romantic relationship went wrong. The masterstroke of Jacques Sternberg’s original screenplay was to have the time-travel machine in which this anti-hero is ensconced literally malfunction, a conceit that then allows Resnais to indulge in what might be the most complex non-linear editing schemes of his career. Of course, a film that is this narratively fragmented is ideally suited to Blu-ray, a format that Resnais practically predicted/invented given how the concept of “chapter stops” enables one to freely skip around, freeze and revisit individual moments at will.

lifeisabed

Life is a Bed of Roses and Love Unto Death are lesser-known, but by no means lesser, Resnais works and are happily coupled together in a single Blu-ray package from Cohen Media Group. Coming in the middle of his career as a feature filmmaker, they were both scripted by Jean Gruault and mark Resnais’s first two collaborations with the great actress Sabine Azema who would remain the director’s muse (and eventually become his wife) for the remainder of his career. Life is a Bed of Roses, the earlier of the two, is an ambitious, big-budget comedy/fantasy/musical that juggles three separate narratives — all of which are set in different eras but revolve around the same castle setting. Love Unto Death, made one year later, is a darker, more austere affair centering on two couples (comprised of four actors from the previous film: Azema, Pierre Arditi, Fanny Ardant and Andre Dussollier) grappling with questions pertaining to love and (im)mortality. Devoid of Resnais’s usual humor, Love Unto Death probably looks more interesting today than when it came out; the film’s considerable formal interest includes an ominous score by Hans Werner Henze that is only heard during non-narrative interludes consisting of shots depicting a strange substance (snow? ashes?) falling from the night sky.

Life of Riley was Resnais’s final film, his third adaptation of an Alan Ayckbourn play, and an excellent example of the artificial, deliberately “theatrical” style of his late period. It tells the story of three couples (a gaggle of Resnais regulars including Azema, Dussollier, Sandrine Kiberlain, Hippolyte Girardot, Caroline Silhol and Michel Vuillermoz), all amateur stage performers, who learn of the impending death by cancer of their close friend George Riley. Riley, who at one time or another was the object of affection of all three female leads, is a crucial character who remains offscreen throughout — one of several subtle but daringly surreal and death-haunted touches that belies the film’s otherwise lighthearted and fun exterior. Resnais died three weeks after Life of Riley‘s world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival, where it deservedly won two awards, and it is hard to imagine another movie functioning as a more fitting epitaph to the career of this giant of cinema. Among the extras on Kino/Lorber’s stellar Blu-ray are interviews with the six principal cast members whose obvious love for their director is palpable and infectious.

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Review Roundup: EUFF, pt. 2 (Cine-File)

I originally wrote the following reviews for Cine-File Chicago back in March to coincide with theatrical screenings at the Siskel Center’s European Union Film Festival.

Jessica Hausner’s AMOUR FOU (New Austrian). Rating: 8.7

amourfou

Most period films try to convince us that the past was just like the present: that people in earlier eras had the same feelings, the same hopes and fears, the same ideas about romance and spirituality that we do today–only they expressed those things while wearing different-looking clothing amid different-looking settings. Austrian writer/director Jessica Hausner (LOURDES) takes the opposite approach in the thrilling AMOUR FOU, positing early-18th century Berlin as a landscape as unfamiliar as that of futuristic science fiction. The film centers on Heinrich Von Kleist (Christian Friedel), a young German poet and dramatist, and his quest to find a suitable woman to accompany him in a suicide pact. After being rebuffed by his cousin Marie (Sandra Huller), he turns his attentions to Henriette (Birte Schnoeink), a friend’s wife who believes she is dying of a terminal illness. The real-life Kleist authored THE MARQUIS VON O, Eric Rohmer’s film adaptation of which would appear to provide Hausner’s primary cinematic model here: her camera is always static and the performers deliver their monotone lines reading while frequently remaining perfectly still. These tableaux-like shots, which feature broad planes of color and exquisite natural lighting, are astonishing in their painterly beauty, but it is ultimately the way Hausner’s mise-en-scene combines with her sharp original screenplay that immerses viewers in her compelling vision of the Romantic Age: ancient political debates among aristocratic characters (about taxation for all, and the dangerous influence of French-style democracy on Germany) in the most meticulously art-directed interiors imaginable make this portrait of a vanished way of life feel both compelling as social commentary as well as wonderfully, aesthetically strange. (2014, 96 min, DCP Digital) MGS

Peter Kruger’s N: THE MADNESS OF REASON (New Belgian). Rating: 8.2

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N: THE MADNESS OF REASON, a provocative non-fiction/narrative hybrid film by the Belgian documentarian Peter Kruger, centers on Raymond Borremans, a real French explorer and musician who died in 1988 while writing an encyclopedia of the African continent (he only got as far as the titular letter). Kruger has Borremans (voiced by the great actor Michael Lonsdale) narrating the movie and attempting to complete his encyclopedia from beyond the grave, a quasi-fictional conceit reminiscent of Chris Marker that gives shape to a raft of eye-opening documentary images that Kruger captured in the Ivory Coast. Borremans’ voice-over also occasionally engages in a dialogue with an unnamed African woman; he represents intellectual European “reason” (i.e., the desire to label and classify) where she represents African “spirituality,” challenging his foreigner’s eye-view to see beyond the surface of things. Co-written by Nigerian author Ben Okri and featuring a score by Belgian musician Walter Hus, in collaboration with Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara, N: THE MADNESS OF REASON joins the list of important recent films examining Europe’s relationship to colonial and post-colonial Africa, whose impressive ranks include Miguel Gomes’ TABU, Ulrich Kohler’s SLEEPING SICKNESS and various films by Claire Denis and Pedro Costa. (2014, 102 min, DCP Digital) MGS

Pedro Costa’s HORSE MONEY (New Portuguese). Rating: 9.4

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Pedro Costa reaffirms his position as one of contemporary cinema’s finest filmmakers with his first fiction feature in eight years, a hypnotic masterpiece that examines the African immigrant experience in the director’s native Portugal. HORSE MONEY is a sort-of sequel to 2006’s COLOSSAL YOUTH in that Costa again takes the elderly Cape Verdean immigrant known only as “Ventura” as his subject, although here Costa uses the retired construction worker’s haunted visage to more explicitly examine the scars left by his country’s twin bloody legacies of fascism and colonialism. Ventura, lit and framed to alternately resemble Darby Jones in I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE and Woody Strode in SERGEAN RUTLEDGE, spends much of the film wandering the halls of a dark, prison-like hospital while ruminating on a lifetime of painful memories. Costa boldly melds past and present by having the reason for Ventura’s stay explained as both the “nervous disease” that causes his hands to shake uncontrollably and the knife fight with a fellow immigrant that required 93 stitches from 40 years earlier. Although HORSE MONEY is passionately concerned with social issues, there is a thankful absence of editorializing here: one powerful sequence involves a Cape Verdean woman reading aloud birth and death certificates that belong to herself and her family, letting the objective facts of marginalized lives speak for themselves, and another features a montage of static shots of African immigrants simply staring into Costa’s camera from inside their cramped Lisbon homes while the rousing song “Alta Cutelo” by the band Os Tubaroes plays on the soundtrack. The film’s indelible highlight, however, is an extended climax in which Ventura angrily confronts his demons in an elevator, conversing with the voices in his head while a soldier holding a rifle behind him looks on in silence. This “exorcism,” a scene that appeared virtually intact in the omnibus film CENTRO HISTORICO, leads to a cathartic finale in which Ventura leaves the hospital and is greeted by a rosy-fingered dawn. A final shot, however, shows the character staring at knives in a store’s display window (perhaps a subconscious visual quote from Fritz Lang’s M) suggesting that, decades after the “April Revolution,” the real revolution has not yet begun. (2014, 103 min, DCP Digital) MGS

Alain Resnais’ LIFE OF RILEY (New French). Rating: 8.8

life

LIFE OF RILEY, the final film of Alain Resnais, one of the greatest and most innovative directors of all time, premiered at the 2014 Berlin International Film Festival (where it won two prizes) just three weeks before its creator died at the age of 91. Unsurprisingly, death suffuses nearly every frame of this deceptively simple comedy, based on an Alan Ayckbourn play, about marital discord between three couples in Yorkshire, England. The title refers to George Riley, a character who never appears onscreen but, much like A LETTER TO THREE WIVES’ Addie Ross, manages to sow temptation into the hearts of the three female protagonists (Sandrine Kiberlain, Caroline Sihol and the inevitable Sabine Azima) before ultimately strengthening the bonds between them and their current partners (Hippolyte Girardot, Michel Vuillermoz and the inevitable Andre Dussollier). It is revealed at the film’s beginning that Riley has recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer, the news of which prompts several of his enamored lady friends, including his recent ex-wife, to conspire to accompany him on his final vacation. Complicating matters is that most of these characters, including Riley, are also rehearsing for a stage play that they will appear in together, a conceit that allows Resnais to examine his pet theme of the intersection of reality and fiction. Shot on deliberately artificial-looking sets and featuring the occasional mysterious appearance of a CADDYSHACK-like mole puppet, LIFE OF RILEY proves that Resnais had lost none of his playful Surrealist spirit even in his tenth decade on earth. But in the end, this final testament is as moving as it is charming: the last shot, depicting a young woman placing a postcard (bearing a message the viewer cannot read) on top of a coffin, is a fitting self-epitaph to an extraordinary career. To paraphrase a rueful exchange between Billy Wilder and William Wyler from long ago: “No more Resnais films.” (2014, 108 min, DCP Digital) MGS


CIFF 2014: 12 Most Wanted

Here are a dozen of the titles I’d most like to see turn up at the 50th(!) Chicago International Film Festival in October. Even if you don’t know or care anything about the Chicago International Film Festival, consider this a handy guide to a bunch of exciting-looking-and-sounding movies that should hopefully be turning up soon at a theater near you. All but the Alain Resnais and the Pedro Costa films played this past May at Cannes, which struck me as having an unusually strong lineup, or at least an unusually strong lineup of movies by directors I admire.

Bird People (Pascale Ferran, France)

birdpeople

One of my favorite French films of the 21st century is the adaptation of the second (and more obscure) version of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley made by Pascale Ferran, a female director about whom I know virtually nothing. Her latest, Bird People, got high marks from critics when it screened in the Un Certain Regard sidebar at Cannes. It’s an intriguing-sounding comedy about an American businessman (The Good Wife’s Josh Charles) on a 24-hour layover in Paris. The entire film apparently takes place in Charles de Gaulle airport and a nearby Hilton Hotel. This is not a prequel to Takashi Miike’s excellent Bird People in China.

Charlie’s Country (Rolf De Heer, Australia)

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This is the third part of a trilogy of films by Dutch-born Australian filmmaker Rolf de Heer. The first two parts include a folkloric meditation on Aboriginal characters in Australia’s pre-colonial past (Twelve Canoes) and a powerful study of the conflict between European settlers and Aboriginal characters in the outback during the early 20th century (The Tracker). Charlie’s Country, like its predecessors, also stars David Gulpilil (who co-wrote the script and won the best actor award in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard sidebar at Cannes), but tackles issues of racism and the legacy of colonialism from the vantage point of the present.

Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas, France/USA)

clouds

An aging actress (Juliette Binoche) performs in a play that made her a star 20 years previously — only in a part supporting that of the main character who is now incarnated by an up-and-coming actress (Chloe Grace Moretz) reminiscent of her younger self. This sounds an awful lot like All About Eve to me but early critical notices have compared this to meta films like Persona. Writer/director Olivier Assayas has always been good with actors and in addition to the exciting prospect of seeing him reteam with Binoche (after the sublime Summer Hours), this also promises to be something of a breakthrough for Kristen Stewart, who plays a personal assistant to Binoche’s character.

Goodbye to Language (Jean-Luc Godard, Switzerland/France)

goodbye

The single movie I most want to see play at CIFF is Jean-Luc Godard’s latest (and, some have whispered, last) feature — a 3-D essay that has something to do with a talking dog and the conflict between a married couple. Goodbye to Language was given a rock-star’s welcome at Cannes — in spite of the fact that the 83-year-old director didn’t attend — and generated more positive reviews than usual (many of which marveled at Godard’s use of 3-D technology) for one of the world’s most divisive filmmakers. Still, in spite of the praise, in spite of the Cannes Jury Prize, in spite of the fact that 20th Century friggin’ Fox picked up distribution rights, the question arises: will Chicagoans ever have the chance to see this in 3-D, the way it was intended to be seen? None of the Chicago venues that have screened Godard’s latest works in the past 20 years (Facets, the Music Box, the Siskel Center, etc.) are equipped to show movies in 3-D. If CIFF doesn’t scoop this up, it will be a tragedy for local cinephiles.

Horse Money (Pedro Costa, Portugal)

horse

The great Portuguese director Pedro Costa returns to narrative filmmaking (or at least docu-fiction) for the first time in nearly a decade with this continuation of his celebrated Fontainhas trilogy (are you ready to upgrade that box-set, Criterion — preferably to Blu-ray?). This film, which recently snagged Costa the Best Director prize at the Locarno Film Festival, has something to do with Ventura, the elderly Cape Verdean-immigrant protagonist of Costa’s Colossal Youth from 2006, wandering around a hospital and the ruins of the former slum where he used to live (the destruction of which was documented in 2000’s superb In Vanda’s Room). In Colossal Youth, Ventura was a non-actor essentially playing himself but part of what made that film so fascinating was Costa’s insistence on lighting and framing his physiognomy so that he resembled Woody Strode in John Ford’s Sergeant Rutledge. I can’t wait to see what Costa does with actor and character here. Intriguingly, Variety said this was “less overtly difficult” and even more “striking” than Costa’s other Fontainhas missives.

Jauja (Lisandro Alonso, Argentina)

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Argentinian director Lisandro Alonso burst onto the international scene with his formidable 2004 experimental/narrative hybrid film Los Muertos. His penchant for long takes, minimal dialogue and narrative ambiguity made his work destined for the condescending “slow cinema” tag. Yet the fact that his latest stars Viggo Mortensen (a fine actor and a bona fide movie star) also caused some speculation that the result might be some sort of sell-out. Fortunately, advance word from Cannes has pegged this movie — about a father and daughter journeying to an “unknown desert that exists in a realm beyond the confines of civilization” as nothing other than a typically spellbinding Lisandro Alonso film.

Life of Riley (Alain Resnais, France)

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Alain Resnais’s final film, another in a series of Alan Ayckbourn adaptations, racked up accolades and a couple of prizes when it premiered in Berlin in February. Less than a month later, its creator — one of the world’s greatest living filmmakers — had passed away at the age of 91. Since this theater-set tale is centered on a protagonist who only has a few months left to live, it will be hard not to view it as something like a last testament, although one should remember that this would have been true of many of Resnais’s films (including such death-haunted masterworks as Love Unto Death and You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet). This stars the inevitable Sabine Azema, Resnais’s frizzy-haired wife and muse, who has been his regular leading lady for decades.

Maps to the Stars (David Cronenberg, Canada/USA)

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Like all “late Cronenberg,” Maps to the Stars has typically divided critics, but it has its share of ardent supporters, and the premise (a dark satire of a stereotypical Hollywood family that also marks the first time the director ever set down a tripod on U.S. soil) is irresistible. The impressive cast includes Robert Pattinson, Carrie Fisher, John Cusack, Mia Wasikowska, Olivia Williams and Julianne Moore, the last of whom nabbed the Best Actress trophy at Cannes for playing an unhinged actress. If this turns up at CIFF, it will likely only be as a “special gala presentation.”

Mr. Turner (Mike Leigh, UK)

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Mike Leigh is England’s greatest living filmmaker and Mr. Turner, his first film since 2010’s superb Another Year, sounds like another winner. A dream project of Leigh’s for many years, this biopic of 19th English landscape painter J.M.W. Turner (Timothy Spall) supposedly investigates the artistic process against a richly detailed historical backdrop in a manner similar to Topsy-Turvy, one of the director’s masterpieces. Spall won Best Actor at Cannes for what has been described as a towering performance. He’s always been a superb character actor and I look forward to seeing what he can do in a leading role.

Mommy (Xavier Dolan, Canada)

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A lot of commentators thought this Canadian melodrama had the Palm d’Or sewn up after it premiered at Cannes but, come awards night, writer/director Xavier Dolan found himself “only” sharing third place with Jean-Luc Godard. That’s probably for the best because, at 25-years-old, Dolan’s best work surely lies ahead of him. Dolan makes stylistically and emotionally brash films that have earned him comparisons to everyone from Godard to Pedro Almodovar to Wong Kar-Wai. Many feel that this character study, which focuses on a single mother, her delinquent teenage son and a mousy neighbor, is Dolan’s most assured work to date. As an admirer of the director’s first three films, that makes me eager to check this out.

Timbuktu (Abderrahmane Sissako, Mali)

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Bamako, Malian director Abderrahmane Sissako’s previous film, was a complex, heady, experimental, and all-around disturbing indictment of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. This belated follow-up, about jihadists taking over a rural town in norther Mali, didn’t win any awards when it debuted at Cannes but was considered by some to be the very best film in the Official Competition. The Variety review called it “a stunningly shot condemnation of intolerance and its annihilation of diversity, told in a way that clearly denounces without resorting to cardboard perpetrators.” Given the singular brand of political filmmaking on display in Bamako, this sounds, at the very least, like a provocative ride.

Winter Sleep (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey)

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As someone who admired each of Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s four previous features but felt that he really made a quantum leap with the last one (2011’s masterful Once Upon a Time in Anatolia), I couldn’t be more excited about this three-hour-plus, Palm d’Or-snatching follow-up. The plot concerns an actor-turned-hotel owner and his tempestuous relationships with his young wife and recently divorced sister. Expect a slow pace, impeccable cinematography (a former photographer, Ceylan has arguably the best compositional eye in contemporary cinema) and lots and lots of psychodrama.


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