Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Wrong man, washerwoman, murderer, archduke, baronette, pin cushion, puppet: Essential Art House Volume IV

A little film festival captured in a starkly handsome black box,
Essential Art House Volume IV contains a diverse selection of titles, some previously available on the Criterion label and some new to DVD, some familiar and some forgotten, nearly all of them absolutely worth the attention of any hungry film lover.

Is there any film more relentlessly entertaining that
The 39 Steps (1935)? I considered not bothering to watch it again for this piece, but I couldn’t resist. Alfred Hitchcock’s breathless adaptation of John Buchan’s novel travels light, with its hero, Richard Hannay (Robert Donat), an ordinary tourist turned wanted man with perhaps the cinema’s least convincing Canadian accent, going from a London theatre, where a riot breaks out over some guy’s demands to know the age of Mae West, to his apartment, where he fries up a giant haddock for a soon-to-be-dead lady spy while smoking a cigarette, to a train bound for Scotland, where a brassiere salesman shows his wares, to a Highlands farm, where he evades capture with the aid of a heartbreaking Peggy Ashcroft, to… Oh, just watch it already, whether for the first or fourteenth time.

Adapted from Émile Zola’s 1877 novel
L’Assommoir, Réne Clément’s Gervaise (56) chronicles the titular Parisian washerwoman’s struggles with poverty, physical handicaps, gossipy women, small business management, motherhood, slovenly alcoholic men, the impossibility of class advancement, and burning desire. It’s brilliantly rendered, with exteriors that recall Cartier-Bresson, a series of ordinary tragedies exacerbated by stubborn pride, and several extended sequences, such as a riotous cat fight involving buckets of water, and ending with naked ass-spanking; a noisy, working class wedding party’s impromptu visit to the Louvre in their muddied boots and skirts; and a gloriously carnal dinner party centered around the consummation of an enormous goose that culminates in a most unexpected confrontation between Gervaise’s former and present lovers. The portrait of a busy household teeming with scruffy kids and merrymakers who seem determined to stay together no matter how absurd the circumstances seems to look forward to John Cassavetes’ unruly ensemble works, though Cassavetes would surely have had that goose wind up on the floor. The conclusions the film draws are bleak as can be, but it remains insistently alive throughout, thanks in no small part to Maria Schell’s captivating and heart-rendering performance as Gervaise, teary-eyed over her goose, longing for the blacksmith she can’t possess, or singing ‘Let Me Sleep’ to a mass of friends huddled in silence around a table. Wonderful.

Can’t say the same of Le Jour se lève (39), much as I truly wanted to. It’s ultra fatalistic, was directed by Marcel Carné, stars the effortlessly charming Jean Gabin, is considered a prime example of poetic realism, and the filmmakers were so hardcore—or, you know, stupidly reckless—they used real bullets in one scene. For all that, this flashback film attempting to understand what drove Gabin to murder a guy underwhelmed me with its fairly banal conclusions about human weakness, its quaintness with regards to romantic love, its lack of any real comment on class, and its lapses in logic—is it me or are the trigger-happy, teargas-wielding police who besiege Gabin’s apartment overreacting just a touch?

Anatole Litvak’s
Mayerling (36), based on Claude Anet’s play Idyll’s End, is a heady French romance concerned with the opposite end of the socioeconomic spectrum, detailing the overpowering attraction between the Archduke Rudolph, heir to the Austrian throne, and the teenage daughter of a Baron. Rudy’s a married playboy shackled to the dictates of his pivotal political position, permitted nearly every indulgence but genuine freedom and the ability to take a bride of his choosing. Embodied by Charles Boyer and Danielle Darrieux, who would later reunite for Max Ophüls’ masterpiece The Earrings of Madame de… (53), the lovers are nearly drowned by the almost endless parade of opulence and activity, including a puppet show, a game of ring-tossing around the necks of swans, a ballet, a grand ball, and a wild, hedonistic party that finds the Archduke pouring booze over the bosoms of many fetching ladies and finally shooting his mirror reflection. Yet the moments Boyer and Darrieux do share are appropriately fleeting and delirious, all glinting eyes and sudden realizations delivered in long dissolves and fluid montages.

The films in Essential Art House Volume IV would seem to have no special connection save their revered status, but I couldn’t help but note that the majority of them feature a climactic death scene played out in the first rays of dawn. This includes a film that boasts what’s surely one of the great bravura movie deaths ever, Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (57), his inspired, deeply eerie, fog-enveloped adaptation of Macbeth set in feudal Japan, which ends with Toshiro Mifune flailing hysterically through his fortress under a hail of arrows that turn him into a human pin cushion. It should be a perfect place to end this series, except that I still haven’t gotten around to Powell and Pressburger’s Tales of Hoffmann (51), their adaptation of the Offenbach opera, which—here’s a weird fact for you—just happens to be George Romero’s favourite film. I still have to watch it, but I’m almost certain there are no zombies anywhere in the movie.

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