Bright Lights Film Journal

Bright Sights: Recent DVDs: Mouchette, Siberiade, 1900, The Oyster Princess, I Don’t Want to Be a Man, King Lear, Another Sky

An ongoing column that looks at some of the most intriguing of recent, under-the-radar releases

Mouchette (Robert Bresson, 1967)

Robert Bresson’s film, Mouchette, like his previous release, Au Hasard Balthasar (1966), is an ambush on the emotions, but it’s easy to see it coming. From the very start of the picture, you know the adolescent Mouchette (Nadine Nortier) is doomed, just by the coarse frock and frayed woolen stockings she wears to school every day, or by the hopeless little ribbons festooning her otherwise ill-kept hair. Sharing a meager existence in provincial France with her terminally ill mother and alcoholic bootlegger father, the young girl floats numbly within a closed society of debased human behavior.

The rest of the girls in Mouchette’s school are shiny and scrubbed, with fashionable short skirts and pretty leather shoes, and Mouchette likes to hide in a ditch and throw mud at them. Their response is to sit and flip over on a metal fence and flash their snow-white underpants at her. On her way home, the boys call out to her, drop their pants, and expose themselves. Because she’s poor and unkempt and acts strangely, Mouchette is judged a tramp in the making — she’s just no good — and each of her days is a gauntlet of taunts, snubs, and rough handling.

The film’s epicenter is a taut sequence in which Mouchette enters into a secret alliance with a scruffy poacher, Arsène, who may or may not be a murderer. When a sudden intimacy develops, the poacher takes it as permission to casually rape the child, but Bresson doesn’t overplay the horror or the shame. Escaping from Arsène, Mouchette merely integrates the rape into a battered kid’s inverted, but coping, version of dreadful events, of which plenty more are in store for her.

Bresson’s style is dry and dramatically unassuming, but it sinks its teeth into you anyway. The director’s practice of using non-actors pays off big, especially with Nortier, who, at 18, plays the 14- to 15-year-old very convincingly. Much of the time Nortier appears to sleepwalk through her scenes, but her deadened expression seems quite appropriate as the façade of an abused child who’s tunneled deep within herself.

A scene at a street carnival, where Mouchette opts for the bumper car attraction, is a stand-out because the director allows Nortier to briefly become a normal happy teenager, flirting with a boy by continually rounding about in her car and slamming into his — it’s a neat metaphor for the awkward thrust and parry of adolescent sex play — but minutes later, of course, she receives a smack on the side of the head from her father when she dares to speak to the boy. The picture is a litany of such moments.

Bresson, in an interview included in Criterion’s recent DVD of the film, calls the forces operating against Mouchette “a solidarity of evil.” Elegantly structured and photographed but as simple as a parable, this is clearly the work of a master, yet it feels calculatingly joyless. Grouping with Mouchette’s the humiliations heaped on pretty Marie in Au Hasard Balthasar, I wonder about Bresson. Did he have a fetish for subjecting provincial gamines to emotional and sexual abuse?

In the half-hour documentary, Au Hasard Bresson (1967), included on Criterion’s disc, Bresson seems as humorless as his film. Not surprisingly, he was a devout Christian. He says he mistrusts the role of underscores in film — the music guides the reaction of the viewer — and yet he places fragments of Monteverdi’s Magnificat at the beginning and end of his film. Within this choral framing, the understated pathos of Mouchette’s final actions is somehow sanctified, just as Balthasar’s death gets its air of nobility from the fatalistic strains of a Schubert piano sonata (Sonata in A, D959, Andantino movement).

Criterion’s transfer is customarily pristine, crisp and gorgeous in its range of black-and-white values, and the extras, including the above-mentioned documentary and a segment from a cine-magazine, Cinéma, are well considered and informative. The latter includes a brief interview with a nearly nonverbal Nortier, who mostly answers “Oui” or “Non” to every question. Mouchette, it turns out, was Nortier’s only picture. Where is she now, I wonder.

France/1967/Black & White/Fullscreen/81 minutes. Issued on DVD by The Criterion Collection, 2006. Available now.

Siberiade (Andrei Konchalovsky, 1979)

In the U.S., Andrei Konchalovsky is known mostly for his ’80s American films, like Runaway Train (1985),Maria’s Lovers (1984), or, gulp, the Stallone vehicle, Tango & Cash(1989). But while still in the USSR during the ’70s, the director amassed a body of work that included a stellar, now obscure 1970 film of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, with War and Peace(1968) director Sergei Bondarchuk in the role of Dr. Astrov. In 1979 came Siberiade, which wasn’t afraid to take a few potshots at the Soviet bureaucracy.

Given its length of nearly five hours in four parts, and what Kino claims is the show’s OAR (1.33:1), I wouldn’t be surprised if Siberiade had been conceived as a television mini-series. Konchalovsky’s filmmaking seems by-the-seat-of-your-pants scrappy, with jagged cuts, uneven continuity and experiments with monochromatic sequences amidst the full color photography, some of which looks indifferently shot. Furthering the roughshod impression is the state of Kino’s transfer, which is full of speckles and scratches.

But Siberiade remains a beguiling film. As he takes in the life of the remote Siberian village, Elan, from just before the Russian Revolution up to sometime in the ’60s, Konchalovsky strongly roots his story in a decades-long antipathy between two village families, the worker Ustyuzhanins and the land-owning Solomins. Over the course of the film the two families operate as a true Hegelian dialectic, being at first the opposing forces of proletarian and ruling class that eventually, by movie’s end, resolve into a Soviet synthesis.

There’s nothing dryly philosophical about the process, however. Konchalovsky’s narrative is a rich mélange of love, war, betrayal and sacrifice, with a little magic realism thrown in. The young Ustyuzhanin and Solomin men, responding to one revolution and two world wars, must leave their village, but they always return, charged by the Soviet government to develop the region. For the Ustyuzhanins, father and son Nikolai and Alexei, this means oil, which is spectacularly abundant in a vast swamp area superstitiously known, and avoided, as The Devil’s Mane. Battling primitive fears, unyielding nature, and a waffling Soviet bureaucracy, it takes forty years before sheer willpower produces a gusher.

Along the way, there are two love stories that give the story much of its melancholy soul. The hero of the second half of the film, Alexei Ustyuzhanin, is the product of the first set of lovers. Alexei himself, at age 16 poised to join the Red army to fight the Germans in WWII, meets a blonde teenaged sprite named Taya, to whom he returns to mistreat in the 1960s. Suddenly appearing at his lost-in-time village with heavy machinery and a drilling crew, Alexei has enough chutzpah and eco-blindness to embarrass a venture capitalist, but is so vividly inhabited by actor Nikita Mikhalkov (brother of Konchalovsky) that he manages to win our sympathy.

There’s lots of bravura filmmaking here, especially in a nightmarish segment that takes place in the waterlogged WWII battlefield where Alexei unwittingly saves a member of the rival Solomin family. Throughout, the shots of the varied Siberian landscape express a superhuman vastness that the Soviet bureaucracy struggles to control at the expense of the dwindling population that live within it. Konchalovsky seems to cast a jaundiced eye on the Soviet machine until the end of the show when he allows a gigantic auditorium of committee members to remember its moral duty to the most forgotten of the proletariat.

Siberiade is just one title in Kino’s worthy and growing collection of Soviet-era films.

USSR/1979/Color, with monochrome sequences/Fullscreen/260 minutes. Issued by Kino Video, 2007. Available now.

1900 (Novecento) (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1977)

Anticipating as I did Bertolucci’s follow-up to Last Tango in Paris (1973), I remember my disappointment with the truncated version of 1900 issued here in the late ’70s. In an interview provided by Paramount with their recent DVD release of the full 5+ hour original cut, Bertolucci emphasizes again that he did the chopping himself at the producer’s insistence, but avers that he didn’t remove any whole scenes, just made them shorter.

The original cut, released in the U.S. in 1991, makes for a stronger film, but who can say it isn’t still flawed? Some of the mechanics of the overreaching plot are now properly oiled, but their creak remains. The fascist villains of the piece, the foreman Attila (Donald Sutherland) and wife Regina (Laura Betti), are finely played — Sutherland particularly is terrific — but their ghoulish perversions, and Attila’s streak of pure evil, make for an unwieldy stacked deck in this epic drama of Italian communism struggling to emerge between the wars.

Both born with the new century, peasant Olmo (Gerald Depardieu) and landowner Alfredo (Robert De Niro) grow up so ferociously close to each other that the friendship becomes a kind of symbiotic romance. As boys, they compare penis size; as young men, they share a whore. It’s Bertolucci exploring the sexual politic again, and the metaphor, equating Alfredo and Olmo’s passionate push/pull relationship to perpetual class struggle, works well for a time. But late in the show the conflicted friendship flattens into a polemic, and the director has trouble ending his tale.

The worst longueur in the film, the unraveling of Alfredo’s marriage, remains tedious in the longer cut, but, with other scenes extended, Alfredo’s helplessness in the face of Ada’s growing alienation resonates better within the much-improved narrative flow. The casting of DeNiro still seems a mistake, especially if you choose the English soundtrack where his New York-inflected line readings sound comically flat, but the other Americans — Burt Lancaster, Sterling Hayden and Sutherland — appear to have sprung out of provincial Italian soil. Then you have Depardieu, who lends the show real juice, conveying with broad back and stricken eyes the soul of a peasant who discovers himself politicized by atrocity and oppression.

If the film has faults, they’re the faults of many a great opera, and maybe it’s best if you view 1900 as a lyrical drama, with Vittorio Storaro’s peerless cinematography taking the place of a great musical score. (The film, of course, has an actual musical score, and a great one, by Ennio Morricone.) Storaro’s photography constructs magnificent set-pieces with light, especially in the first half of the film when the story is drenched in the golden late afternoon sunshine of eternal childhood summer. One stunning sequence is a peasant dance held in a grove of trees that are backlit, to sublime effect, by the low afternoon sun. Combined with Bertolucci’s virtuosic camera movements, the segment’s pictorial splendor is not gratuitous — it perfectly expresses Bertolucci’s vision of authentic Italian culture being rooted in the countryside of an even older Italy, the pre-Unification Italy of the early nineteenth century.

Toward the close of the picture, the communist struggle ends with a whimper, but the dramatic vacuum pulls a final soulful image from Storaro. Rising from Alfredo’s Liberation Day taunting of Olmo (“The padrone is still here”), the camera gazes, with the setting sun, upon the distant countryside into which Alfredo’s peasants have gone dancing with the massive unfurled red banner of their convictions. Next to this enchanted sight, Bertolucci’s final scene, the symbolic slapstick with Olmo and Alfredo roughhousing as old men, seems a whimsical contrivance.

Paramount’s two-disc set includes short interviews with Bertolucci and Vittorio Storaro discussing the making of 1900. I would have liked to have heard more from these two, especially Bertolucci, who speaks with some clarity about his youthful political idealism and his high hopes for 1900 as an agent toward reconciling the clash between democratic and communist ideologies. Smiling ruefully, he admits it didn’t quite have the desired effect.

Italy/1976/USA 1977/Color/Widescreen anamorphic/315 minutes/Dolby Digital English 2.0 Surround/ Italian mono/French mono/Issued on DVD by Paramount Home Entertainment, 2006. Available now.

The Oyster Princess (Ernst Lubitsch, 1919) & I Don’t Want to Be a Man(Lubitsch, 1918)

Ernst Lubitsch’s 1919 comedy feature The Oyster Princess has all the subversive rambunctiousness of a Tex Avery cartoon. The nonstop buffoonery starts right away as we’re introduced to the Oyster King puffing on a cigar the size of a baby dirigible. This enormously successful seafood magnate — nearly catatonic with ennui, and remotely controlled by a legion of servants — greets every turn of events with, “I’m not impressed.” Neither is he impressed with the violent, hormone-driven frenzy of his young daughter, who ends up reducing entire rooms to shards of ceramic and torn fabric. By making extravagant messes, she’s telling her father: I want to marry a prince — and a real one — or else.

The resulting farce is several light years from the suave wit of the later Lubitsch, but there’s no reason to complain — this is the most joyfully hilarious 60 minutes I’ve spent in years. Although the show ends sweetly romantic, its steady parade of shameless sight gags is in some ways a prototype of the “throw everything at ’em” method found in comedies like 1980’s Airplane! — and Lubitsch sustains his laughs better than Zucker/Abrahams.

An outstanding sequence featuring a “fox trot epidemic” has an entire wedding party — and the cooking staff and the servants — feverishly prancing and jumping to the dotted rhythms of this latest dance craze. They’re accompanied not by a dance band but by an entire symphony orchestra led by an over-enthusiastic conductor who bumps and grinds while keeping time. On the newly recorded soundtrack, a small ensemble led by Alijoscha Zimmermann, really shines here, but they lend the entire film a delicate buoyancy that never second guesses the jokes.

A slightly pudgy blonde phenomenon named Ossie Oswald plays the Princess with a stilted aplomb that allows for plenty of strange behavior. Although dubbed the German Mary Pickford in the twenties, Oswald is adorable in a perverse, disquieting manner that would belie the wholesomeness of a Pickford. Ossie, in other words, is just a little bit out of her mind.

Ossie Oswald also plays the lead in Lubitsch’s 1918 romantic comedy, I Don’t Want to Be a Man, which, while more subdued than Oyster Princess, pushes its own eccentric agenda. Here Ossie is a young girl who, feeling oppressed by her parents, wants to experience the independence enjoyed by men. Oswald is manic here and mugs wildly, but her cross-dressing routine is endearingly funny. The gender mix-up at a party with a bored roué (who just happens to be her new “guardian”) is tart: Ossie successfully gets his attention, but the gentleman believes her disguise, thinks her a boy, and comes on to “him.” Nearly blind drunk, the two leave the party, hail a cab, and make out woozily in the back seat. The gay premise of the gag is breezily integrated.

Both films, on one disc, are part of Kino’s Lubitsch in Berlin series, which features five films all painstakingly restored by the F.W. Murnau Foundation. On this disc, the transfer for The Oyster Princess is one of the finest presentations of a film of this vintage I’ve seen, with a remarkably sharp print featuring lustrous black-and-white values.

German/1918 and 1919/Black & White/Silent/Fullscreen/60 and 45 minutes. Issued by Kino International, 2007. Available now.

King Lear (Grigory Kozintsev, 1969)

Showing a genius of generosity, Facets fronts their recent disc of Grigory Kozintsev’s King Lear with an “introduction” by Peter Sellars, the brilliant and sometimes controversial theater director. Unexpectedly, Sellars delivers an hour-long video lecture, not only on the film itself, but on the entire history of Soviet cinema, from its roots in the early post-revolution avant-garde, to the era of purges and censorship engineered by Stalin. In his examination of Kozintsev’s success in turning Lear’s massive engine of prose and poetry into a film’s equivalent, Sellars is more than passionate — he’s inspiring. The director becomes visibly upset outlining the Stalinist suppression of artistic freedom, especially in the case of Shostakovich, the composer for both of Kozintsev’s Shakespeare films (the other being Hamlet, 1964).

In his score, Shostakovich provides no choruses, but Lear‘s opening scene seems mindful of the prologue to Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov. In the film, a growing multitude of the homeless and disabled wend their way through the most desolate of landscapes to gather at the base of Lear’s castle. Haunting the entire film, this roving band of beggars — the people — becomes its moral backdrop, a particularly Russian concept that Kozintsev shares with Mussorgsky.

Denounced and exposed to assassination, Gloucester’s heir, Edgar, takes the identity of the lamenting Poor Tom and dissolves into this disenfranchised mass. In Kozintsev’s staging of the play’s pivotal Act Three scene — the storm on the blasted heath (here looking like the vast cracked bottom of a dried-up lake bed) — Lear, Kent and the Fool join not just Poor Tom in the hovel, but a host of the dispossessed seeking shelter, too. Having lost rank, family, identity, and shelter, Lear’s madness begins in the context of humanity reductio ad oblivium, forcing Lear to engage with the plight of the huddled derelicts: “Take physic, pomp. / Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel … ”

Lear is played by Jüri Järvet, a small, frail Estonian actor, who we first see emerging from a cubbyhole where he’s been enjoying fun and games with ladies of the court. He’s a tiny man who, in an assuring environment of power and wealth, imagines himself large. Jarvet’s head is majestic, though, with impressive wings of white hair swept back off the temples and coal-black eyes burning with mirth or rage until madness and grief has them die out like embers.

Järvet’s at the center here, but the rest of the cast are exemplary, particularly the imposing Kent of Vladimir Yemelyanov and the radiantly beautiful Cordelia of Valentina Shendrikova. But the film’s cumulative power comes as much from its visual acuity, which, as Sellars views it, matured out of Eisenstein’s language by leaving behind that pioneer’s overreaching theatricality. As the ugly events accumulate, Kozintsev photographs them in a sparse, sober manner that (in Sellar’s words) advances “the texture of pure suffering.” By the end of the picture, the gray but detailing light is the kind you’d expect in a gulag from which no one will escape.

Facets’ presentation of this dolorous masterpiece is flawless, with a fine-grain, crisp transfer in pristine condition. Shostakovich’s hard-edged score comes through vividly, though with some expected distortions at the high end. The disc is accompanied by a booklet containing an excerpt from Kozintsev’s book on making King Lear and an essay on the film by Allisa Simon. English subtitles are optional, and that’s potentially a good thing even for non-Russian viewers. Despite Boris Pasternak’s lucid adaptation, watching a profoundly visual film like this while reading subtitles of difficult Shakespearean text is an exhausting balancing act. Get to know the play really well, shut off the subtitles, and watch this movie.

Soviet Union/1969/B&W/Widescreen/132 min./All Zone, NTSC. Issued by Facets, 2007. Available now.

Another Sky (Gavin Lambert, 1954)

Prior to Facets’ DVD release of his sole directorial effort, Another Sky, I’d never heard of Gavin Lambert, but where have I been? Lambert, who died in 2005, was a writer of novels and biographies, a screenwriter (Inside Daisy Clover, 1965, from his own novel), and, from 1950 to 1956, the editor of Sight & Sound magazine. As an intimate of the Moroccan gay artistic/bohemian community, his friends included the likes of Tennessee Williams and Paul Bowles. A good-sized documentary,Remembering Gavin Lambert, included on Facets’ disc, let me in on much of this, and the trio of talking heads — Bruce Weber (photographer), Mart Crowley (playwright), Jack Larson (composer) — made me wonder if Gavin himself wasn’t more fascinating than his film — which is brave and wondrous all on its own.

The show’s drama, though, is muted. Rose Graham (Victoria Grayson), a thirtyish, repressed former governess, arrives in a Moroccan town to take up residence as a companion to an aging English expatriate, Selena Prouse (Catherine Lacy). If this picture had been a major studio project, Rose’s part would mostly likely have gone to Deborah Kerr.

Almost instantly upon arrival, prudish Rose is disgusted by her employer’s unabashed sexual assignations with an unctuous gigolo, Michael (Lee Montague). But then Rose herself becomes smitten with an Arab musician and finds herself crossing a perilous cultural/racial line — shades of heroines like Adel Quested in Passage to India and Daphne Manners in Jewel in the Crown (both 1984). In the end, Rose’s brief affair with Tayeb (Taïeb) changes her life forever.

Lambert falters with the romance — or does he? Tayeb, a native Moroccan non-actor, never manages to project a personality. On her end, Grayson underplays — and is wonderful anyway — but her scenes with her lover lack sensuality, furtive or otherwise. To empathize with Rose’s sexual awakening and its consequences, all we have are Grayson’s expressive eyes and a very touching gesture the actress does exactly twice: when confronting Tayeb with her desire, she brings one hand up and holds it just under her collarbone. The gesture speaks volumes of needing to protect one’s self in the face of overwhelming, and long denied, sexual need.

But then, by never allowing Tayeb and the romance to bloom dramatically, maybe Lambert wants Rose’s dalliance to remain the transitory, rather tawdry thing it really is. Poor Rose, experiencing the affair as soul shattering, becomes unhinged when, on the other side of losing her cherry (accomplished swiftly and unseen in the boy’s lodging), Tayeb simply disappears. Abruptly, Rose chucks her job and ultimately her own cultural identity to chase Tayeb down to the ends of the Sahara desert.

There’s a vivid bus ride over snow-capped mountains after which Rose must proceed on foot into the desert, encountering little villages and Arabian brothels. The prostitutes, “with their painted faces and secret smiles,” say they “know” Tayeb. Rose also stumbles into a men-only entertainment where a female dancer writhes provocatively in front of solemn Arabs. Rose doesn’t turn away when the woman bares her breasts at the climax of the dance.

The whores and the half-naked dancer seem right out of a Delacroix painting, but to Rose they signal the end of hope, which, for this viewer, comes much too quickly and fails to convince. In Rose’s final, melancholy isolation, there’s something of an adolescent girl’s fantasy of doomed love and broken hearts. Capping Lambert’s sophisticated, engaging story, which he also wrote, it’s a bit of a letdown. Could the production have run out of money before the director could fashion a more believable curtain?

Rose’s Passion is densely entwined with the particulars of the Moroccan locale, and that’s one reason Another Sky remains compelling. This is not the Morocco of a fantasist like Von Sternberg, but the real thing circa 1950. No studio of that era would have taken the chances Lambert did in filming the entire show on location, and the results are right as rain, partly because Walter Lassally, the cinematographer (Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), Tom Jones (1963), is so technically adept. His black-and-white photography is at once formally beautiful and unblinkingly descriptive. Facets’ faultless transfer, from a restored print, allows the potent imagery its due.

United Kingdom/1954/B&W/Fullscreen/86 mins. Issued by Facets Video, 2007. Available now.