Elena and Her Men

So producer Louis Wipf says to Jean Renoir, "Hey, Jean Renoir, you wanna make a movie with Ingrid Bergman?"

And Jean Renoir says, "Boy do I!"

Then he sat around for a bit and tried out a few ideas that either he or Wipf or Bergman didn't really like before settling on a fictionalized version of the life of General Georges Boulanger, though not fictionalized enough that Bergman was playing the general.

Anyway, Elena and Her Men (1956) brings the Stage and Spectacle boxset to a close with little stage but a whole lot of spectacle, and is our favorite of the three.

French Cancan

We continue the Stage and Spectacle boxset with 1954's French Cancan wherein Jean Renoir explores the founding of the Moulin Rouge with about as much fidelity to history as Baz Luhrmann. But more interesting than the pseudo-history is the visual panache, with frequent frame references to the works of Renoir's father and his fellow impressionists. Visually stunning to say the least. And perhaps the most.

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The Golden Coach

We've seen three Renoir films so far, and two of them -- The Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game -- are among my absolute favorite films that the Collection has offered us, and the last -- his take on The Lower Depths -- is pretty dang good in its own right.

Now we jump 13 years into his future and find him working in color and out from under the pressures of an impending war (and a bit of an exile to Hollywood) for a trilogy of films dancing around themes of theater and female-empowerment. Well, kind of.

First off from Stage and Spectacle: Three Films by Jean Renoir is 1953's The Golden Coach and boy is it a change from the Renoir we've grown accustomed to.

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Early Summer

Yasujiro Ozu is brilliant.

We've already seen the final chapter of his Noriko Trilogy -- three films about family that each star Setsuko Hara as a 28 year-old woman named Noriko and are otherwise unrelated -- and now take a step back to the second, 1951's Early Summer. In about two years we'll finish off the sequence with the first film, Late Spring, but until then we can bask in the perfection that is Early Summer.

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The Lower Depths

Two movies for the price of one with this week's outing. In 1902 Maxim Gorky debuted his play The Lower Depths about a group of people living in a flophouse in Russia. It was an international hit of a character study, leading to localizations around the world. In 1957 Akira Kurosawa made a version that was fairly faithful to the source material except transported to 19th century Japan. In 1936 Jean Renoir made it into a romantic comedy.
Reportedly, Gorky actually liked Renoir's version, but even Renoir recognized that Kurosawa made the better adaptation. They're both wonderful movies and are both included in the Criterion Collection's The Lower Depths double disc.

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A Woman is a Woman

1961's A Woman is a Woman is Jean-Luc Godard's first film shot in color or Cinemascope, a fact that may be more impressive if it weren't only the third film ever of a man who has made, well, a ton of movies. Still he didn't dive right in with the color (or the Cinemascope): three films later he'd go for color and wide-aspect again with Contempt, but right after that he's back to black and white and 4:3 with Band of Outsiders.

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Smiles of a Summer Night

Many of Ingmar Bergman's films could be called comedies in the existential cosmic absurdism sense, but Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) is a romantic comedy sex romp with shades of Oscar Wilde. It was Bergman's big break. He'd been making films for over a decade with nothing landing with an audience. He was at his wits end, even thought he was dying, and desperately needed a win. Which he definitely got here.

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Mamma Roma

It was only a matter of time before we had to watch another Pier Paolo Pasolini film. After the first one, so many years ago, we were not looking forward to it. But no movie could be another Salo, though I'm sure some have tried.

Mamma Roma is, in a way, a proto-Salo, though. It is a critique of Italian identity and power structures that while comparatively mild I can imagine that between its release in 1962 and Salo's in 1975 Pasolini boiled over from wanting to be heard properly. "We are bad people. We do bad things to ourselves." is the refrain (echoed by Visconti in last week's The Leopard as well), the message here is a slow simmer compared to what it would become, but no less unsubtle.

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The Leopard

We return to Italian/Sicilian history with The Leopard, an historical epic about one rich man's family and political life circa Unification. Luchino Visconti's 1963 film is based on posthumously published 1958 novel of the same name by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa who now has an asteroid named after him.

The story follows an aristocrat -- played by Burt Lancaster so that the American distributors could feasibly have a chance at making any money -- who recognizes that his kinds' time is coming to an end and his nephew who will go wherever the political wind blows him as long as it keeps him in power. It's been called the Italian Gone with the Wind, but as we have seen that just means it's an historical epic. It's also really good. Like better than Gone with the Wind by a lot.

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The Tin Drum

Yesterday was Hitler's birthday, so here's a film with a complicated relationship to Nazis?

On the one hand Volker Schlondorff's The Tin Drum (1979) does show some of the horrors of living under Nazi occupation in Gdańsk-- I've just now learned that Danzig is the German name for the city, and it seems inappropriate to use it here, Gdansk is the Polish name  -- and it briefly embodies the aftermath of the Holocaust in one scarred character (who was only recently re-added to the film for this Criterion release). On the other it is based on a book by a man that hid that he was a Nazi soldier for decades and is about someone who uses Nazism when its useful to him and abandons it when its not.

Of course it's also about a little boy who quite literally refuses to grow up.

As I said, it's complicated.

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Stray Dog

Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura are two of the greatest actors of the 20th century. It happens that they also frequently collaborated with one another and with some of the greatest film directors to come out of mid-century Japan. As such, it seems they may be the actors who most often appear in the Criterion Collection as well, though it's hard to track that information without it becoming a whole new obsession.

They costar in Stray Dog under the helm of Criterion standard Akira Kurosawa from 1949 and it would be a feat of pure disaster if all that talent didn't make for an amazing film. Plus it's a police procedural! Who doesn't love a good police procedural?

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A Story of Floating Leaves and Floating Leaves: Two Films by Yasujiro Ozu

We return to the Yasujiro Ozu well with a double feature, or as Pat corrects me, a one and a half feature. Ozu made the silent black-and-white A Story of Floating Leaves in 1934 then during a break in his production schedule after finishing Good Morning early in 1959 he remade it as Floating Leaves in color and with sound. Fascinating to see a great artist approach the same basic material a quarter-century apart. It reminds me of Loudon Wainwright III's album Recovery in which he rerecorded some of his earliest work.

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The Testament of Dr. Mabuse

There are only three Fritz Lang films in the Collection -- discounting his delightful appearance as himself in Godard's Contempt -- and these appearances are fairly spread out. We last saw from him with Spine 30 and will next see him at Spine 649. But for now we have Spine 231, his 1933 follow up and sort of sequel to M (as Otto Wernicke plays the same character in both): The Testament of Dr. Mabuse.

M had an interesting background in that Nazis tried to shut it down during pre-production despite their not having come to full political power and Lang's insistence that the film was not meant to be anti-Nazi. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, however, was dedicatedly anti-Nazi and, well, the Nazis were many things, but they weren't really dense. The film was banned in Germany, not shown publicly in the country until 1961. It was the last film he made in Germany until 1959.

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3 Women

Robert Altman has had a long and varied career and Pat and I have only been familiar with his commercial highlights: M.A.S.H., Popeye -- plus for some reason I've seen Gosford Park and A Prairie Home Companion. None of them in the Collection though Altman does make quite a showing.

His first film that Criterion presents to us is 3 Women from 1977, a surreal and dreamlike drama of identity theft, which is appropriate since apparently Altman was inspired to make the film from a dream that he was making a film in the desert with Shelly Duvall and Sissy Spacek and decided that, hey, he should do that.


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Scenes from a Marriage

Scenes from a Marriage started life as a 6-part miniseries on Swedish television one episode per week from April 11 to May 16, 1973, and it is best experienced in that pacing: watch an episode then let each scene sink in before you move on. Six weeks may be too much time, but six nights may be just as good. Plumbing the depths of a relationship so perfectly its no surprise that an international release was sought, but director Ingmar Bergman found trouble convincing foreign television broadcasters to carry a subtitled mini-series. So Bergman edited it all down into a single 167 minute film that is not nearly as impactful. Still great. But not as great. 

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Salvatore Giuliano

With Salvatore Giuliano (1962) Francesco Rosi strove not just to make a biopic of the famed Sicilian outlaw, but to make a neo-realist docu-drama. Pat calls it a proto-History Channel special, and there's strong comparisons, but Rosi's film goes beyond that low bar. One because the film is simply so expertly shot, but also because unlike, say, Ancient Aliens, Rosi sought to only include the facts as he could verify them, ultimately, then, interrogating the official story and making a highly politically-charged thriller.

If only it were a memorable one. In a comment on the official Criterion page for the film friend of the show Keith Enright of The Criterion Completion says: "Watched and unremembered. Time to rectify?" and as Pat and I get into in this week's episode, we can't be sure of when Keith made that post, but either of us could have said the same thing after watching the film twice in less than a week. There are bits that stick, but the whole just doesn't hold together for us.


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Le Corbeau

It takes a special talent to piss off the liberals, the conservatives, the church, the Nazis, and the Resistance, but Henri-Georges Clouzot is a special talent. Of course, holding a mirror up to German-occupied France during the war is a pretty easy way to garner that reaction. Clouzot did just that in Le Corbeau, his 1943 proto-noir. And aside from getting everyone mad at him, he also made it with Continental Films, the sole authorized movie production house in Nazi-occupied France, which give the post-war government the ammunition needed to bar the film's release forever as well as ban Clouzot from ever making a movie again. Both bans lasted just a few years.

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Ok, so Pat doesn't like scary movies, but the Japanese horror films we've seen so far have been something else entirely. Kwaidan, for instance, was a more a collection of folk tales that happened to have ghosts involved.

Similarly, Kaneto Shindo's 1964 film Onibaba isn't much of a horror film, though it's not exactly a folk tale, either. More of the story of the "true" inspiration that became the folk tale of the "Demon hag", though Pat takes some umbrage with translating "baba" as "hag" because, really, who uses the word hag anymore?

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Tunes of Glory

I knew nothing about Tunes of Glory before watching it except that Ronald Neame directed it and Alec Guinness stars as a Scotsman.

Since all the Neame films we've seen so far have been delightfully fun and Alec Guinness heavily made up is good for a laugh or a cringe, I'll be honest I was expecting this 1960 film to be a bit of a lark. It is not. It is so not. And it is wonderful.

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Pickup on South Street

Sam Fuller is a pulpy director, but that's not a problem when it's fun. The issue with Pickup on South Street isn't even necessarily that it isn't fun, I suppose. The problem is that his 1953 "spy" film is just poorly written with character motivation poorly defined and the characters themselves not defined much better. Fuller wrote it himself, so I can't let him off the hook here, but it's still a beautifully shot film and he's responsible for that aspect as well.

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