film fatales #99: the headless woman (lucrecia martel, 2008)

The Headless Woman (2008) came between the other two Lucrecia Martel movies I have seen (La Ciénaga (2001) and Zama (2017). Of Zama, I wrote that "its pleasures have less to do with narrative thrust and more to do with the feel of each scene" and "Martel isn't really concerned with audience ease." It's not that her films are impossible to grasp, but she does require you to meet her more than halfway.

The most intriguing mirror of The Headless Woman comes from the 1962 B-movie Carnival of Souls. Martel has cited that film as an influence, and there have been some good analyses of The Headless Woman that take off from that point. (Check out Catherine Grant's video essay "The Haunting of The Headless Woman".) Both films begin with women in auto accidents who spend most of the rest of the film confused about, well, everything. María Onetto, who plays Vero, perfectly shows us the character's befuddlement. She's helped by Martel's script and direction ... Martel is not someone to present the audience with obvious points we can center on. Odd camera angles, where the characters are just off-camera, help us feel Vero's unsettling experiences. (Martel also uses a lot of static camera shots, which give us time to gather information off the screen.) Vero eventually seems to reconcile herself with whatever happened, although I found her revelations less impressive in that by that point, I was too unsure of what I was seeing to trust my sense that Vero had moved on.

The Headless Woman always keeps us in its world on a scene-by-scene basis. But, as with her other films, you can't count on an easy narrative. #650 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time. #68 on the TSPDT list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

A Letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.

divorce italian style (pietro germi, 1961)

This is the fifth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 6th annual challenge, and my second time participating (last year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20"). Week 5 is called "Commedia all'italiana Week":

From Wikipedia:

"Commedia all'italiana (i.e. "Comedy in the Italian way") or Italian-style comedy is an Italian film genre...widely considered to have started with Mario Monicelli's I soliti ignoti (Big Deal on Madonna Street) in 1958 and derives its name from the title of Pietro Germi's Divorzio all'italiana (Divorce Italian Style, 1961).

Rather than a specific genre, the term indicates a period (approx. from the late fifties to the early seventies) in which the Italian film industry was producing many successful comedies, with some common traits like satire of manners, farcical and grotesque overtones, a strong focus on "spicy" social issues of the period (like sexual matters, divorce, contraception, marriage of the clergy, the economic rise of the country and its various consequences, the traditional religious influence of the Catholic Church) and a prevailing middle-class setting, often characterized by a substantial background of sadness and social criticism that diluted the comic contents."

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen Commedia all'italiana film.

I had 160 films to pick from, and I figured I would only have seen a few. Turns out I'd never seen any. So I went with the film from which the name of the genre is derived.

Divorce Italian Style won many honors, including an Oscar for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay - Written Directly for the Screen (winning over Last Year at Marienbad, Through a Glass Darkly, Freud, and That Touch of Mink). Marcello Mastroianni was nominated for Best Actor, the first male actor nominated for a Best Actor Oscar in a foreign language performance. Pietro Germi was nominated for Best Director. (They lost to Gregory Peck and David Lean, respectively.) The honors are deserved ... Mastroianni carries the film with a performance that walks a line between serious and absurd, and the screenplay by Germi along with Ennio De Concini and Alfredo Giannetti is perfection. The plot is farce ... Mastroianni plays a nobleman from a dissolute family who is unhappy in his marriage, and in love with his teenage cousin (it's likely mostly lust, but he thinks it's love). Due to ancient Italian law, this man can murder his wife and get off with a lenient sentence if he can show he has been cuckolded, so he sets out to pair his wife with a lover so he can catch them in the act, kill her, spend a few years in jail, and come out to marry his young cousin. The plot advances like clockwork, Stefania Sandrelli is appealing as the cousin, and Daniella Rocca is suitably bothersome as the wife.

The whole thing is a comedy ... "in the Italian way" ... and I smiled quite often. But it is not a laugh-out-loud movie, and while it isn't trying for that effect, I did find myself admiring the film without loving it. Put that on me ... Divorce Italian Style does indeed border on perfection, but I might have wished for a little imperfection.

death in venice (luchino visconti, 1971)

Luchino Visconti, working with a novel by Thomas Mann, gives us a tortured artist, Gustav von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde), a young boy, Tadzio (Björn Andrésen), and the city of Venice (Venice). The city is itself, the boy is a mystery, and the artist is, well, tortured ... by the boy. Which is not to imply that Tadzio is actively torturing the artist ... at most, I'd say he allows Gustav to feel tortured, but even that might be going too far. Tadzio might be only slightly more aware than his implied innocence allows.

The boy is maybe 16, the artist perhaps 50. The artist goes to Venice for unclear reasons ... for his health, or to get away from it all, or to be inspired. What he doesn't anticipate is that his inspiration comes from a beautiful teenage boy. "Nothing happens" ... this isn't a film about pederasty. Yes, Gustav lusts after Tadzio, but it is also implied (in flashbacks inserted clumsily into the film) that what Tadzio represents isn't lust, but perfection. His is a natural beauty ... he is born into it ... and this frustrates Gustav, who as an artist must believe that beauty is created, not natural.

Death in Venice argues for both nature and creation. Venice is a creation, made more so by the work of cinematographer Pasqualino De Santis, Björn Andrésen is natural, but used in a creative way to lift him above his inherent beauty (you can't say Andrésen gives a performance, he allows himself to be photographed). As for Gustav (a writer in the book, a composer in the film), we know he strives to be a creator, but the only time we see one of his works, it is booed, and his focus throughout is insistently on Tadzio. That he is a composer allows for the use of Mahler and others on the soundtrack, and it sounds lovely. There is a lot of beauty in Death in Venice.

Visconti makes things as acceptable as he can. The pederasty angle might turn away audiences, but the lack of physical contact between Gustav and Tadzio works against that. Dirk Bogarde deteriorates before our eyes over the course of the film. He may die of a heart attack, but all along, he is made more sick because of his obsession with Tadzio. Death in Venice is moving at times, boring at others, but almost always beautiful. #197 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

germany year zero (roberto rossellini, 1948)

Another movie for "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." Week 30 is called "Martin Scorsese Week".

One of America's most well known and celebrated film makers, Martin Scorsese made a name for himself with landmark films of the New America film wave, such as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, and continues to inspire through his films today. Here, we have a list of films that Scorsese considers imperative to watch for anyone learning the art form.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film from Martin Scorsese's Film School.

Germany Year Zero is the third film in an unofficial trilogy from Rossellini (following Rome, Open City and Paisan). The Germany of this film is a post-war disaster area, with bombed-out buildings and people desperate for basics like food and water. There is a neo-realist feel to much of the film, as is to be expected, but Rossellini also gives us sequences that are almost flights of fantasy in comparison to what the genre usually offers. The scenes showing the blasted lives of Germans after the war are indeed realistic. The women prostitute themselves for money, while the men and children work the black market. In one scene, a horse lies dead in the street, surrounded by people cutting it open and stealing the meat. Many of the ex-Nazis hide their previous lives, but among themselves they feel a bit more free to remember.

A young boy, Edmund, tries to do well for his family, selling things, stealing potatoes, whatever it takes, but his efforts are not enough for the family, which includes a sick father and two older siblings. They only have three ration cards because the older brother, a committed Nazi who fought to the end, is afraid to turn himself in for his own card. The boy watches all of this, and is clearly suffering from the reality of their lives. He meets up with an old school teacher who makes sexual advances and gives Edmund tasks, from which the boy gets a pittance to take home.

Germany Year Zero is dark and oppressive. Edmund comes up with a plan to kill his father so there will be one less mouth to feed. He listens to his old Nazi teacher talk about survival of the fittest, while his father says he wishes he were dead. When Edmund poisons his father, he thinks he is doing a good thing. Such is the world of Germany Year Zero that we understand what leads Edmund to his actions, even as we condemn him for what he has done.

The final segment of the film has Edmund wandering the streets of Berlin. He sees nothing to make him think the world is or ever will be a good place, and makes a decision that is emphatically final.

One imagines Buñuel using surrealism to show us this world, but Rossellini treats it, not as surreal, but as all too real. With hindsight, we know that Germany recovered, but in 1948, Rossellini saw only destruction and despair. #232 on the They Shoot Pictures Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

we still kill the old way (elio petri, 1967)

Another movie for "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." Week 29 is called "Poliziotteschi Week".

From Wikipedia:

"Poliziotteschi [films] constitute a subgenre of crime and action films that emerged in Italy in the late 1960s and reached the height of their popularity in the 1970s. They are also known as Italo-crime, Euro-crime, poliziesco, spaghetti crime films, or simply Italian crime films. Influenced by both 1970s French crime films and gritty 1960s and 1970s American cop films and vigilante films, poliziotteschi films were made amidst an atmosphere of socio-political turmoil in Italy and increasing Italian crime rates. The films generally featured graphic and brutal violence, organized crime, car chases, vigilantism, heists, gunfights, and corruption up to the highest levels. The protagonists were generally tough working class loners, willing to act outside a corrupt or overly bureaucratic system."

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen Poliziotteschi film.

Here is why the Challenge exists. I had never seen a Poliziotteschi film, even though the above link lists 100 of them. So this was definitely new to me.

I ran into some technical problems with this one. It was hard to find ... it finally turned up on the Epix Channel. The problem there was twofold. First, the aspect ratio was wrong, from the original 1.85:1 to what looked like 1.33:1. Second, it was a dubbed version. The latter didn't seem so bad, considering how many Italian movies use post sync for their films. Nonetheless, it wasn't ideal, and I would like to see it again sometime with a better version.

We Still Kill the Old Way was interesting, in any event. I think I was unfair with the movie, which is a crime film that takes place in Sicily. I kept waiting for it to turn into The Godfather, but it was never intended to be that kind of gangster movie (another reason I might appreciate it more on a second viewing). Also, the movie didn't exactly match the Wikipedia definition of poliziotteschi films ... there wasn't that much violence, and it wasn't graphic, while the main protagonist, far from being a working class loner, was a professor. Still, there was plenty of corruption in We Still Kill the Old Way, a corruption embedded into society.

The professor, played by an excellent Gian Maria Volonté, tries to solve a murder that occurs early in the film. It's a bit like a procedural, except with a professor instead of a cop. He keeps bumping into the dead ends of the corrupt society. His lawyer friend (the prolific Gabriele Ferzetti) seems helpful, but he really isn't, although it's not clear if he is a Bad Guy or just someone who knows how to get along. Irene Papas also stars as a mysterious woman who seems involved in everything and nothing simultaneously.

In fact, the film is fairly vague about the crime at the center of things. By the end of the film, nothing is resolved. We never find out who was really in charge of the murders. We assume the Mafia is involved, mostly because while the Mafia isn't explicitly identified, it's obvious that sinister figures run things. I was going to say shadowy, but they aren't in the shadows ... they operate, quietly, in plain sight. The professor's quest becomes almost existential. It's not just that he can't get to the bottom of the crime, it's that it feels like the entire society is against him, ultimately leaving him by himself with no real support from friends or colleagues.

We Still Kill the Old Way seems better as I look back on it, so for the third time I'll say that it warrants another viewing.

the passenger (michelangelo antonioni, 1975)

What am I to do with Antonioni? L'Avventura remains one of my very favorite films. I liked the rest of the "trilogy" (La Notte and L'Eclisse) without loving them. Same for Blow-Up. Thought Red Desert was a drop-off from the trilogy, and found Zabriskie Point pretty awful. I long ago gave up hoping for another L'Avventura ... I just look for something I could at least like.

Well, I don't know if "like" is the word for The Passenger, for it is one of those movies that aren't exactly begging to be liked. Appreciated, yes. Respected, sure. But Antonioni plays with our expectations. He's got Jack Nicholson in the same year Jack won his first Oscar for Cuckoo's Nest, which featured his vibrant energy, and he forces Nicholson into a quieter character with a different kind of antagonism. Appropriately, it should be mentioned ... Nicholson is one of the best things about the movie.

Nicholson plays a journalist, Locke, who exchanges identities with a dead man, Robertson. Almost gets away with it, too. But you can't get much more existential than a man who escapes from his own skin, who doesn't want to be "himself" any more ... and it's significant that the dead man is almost accidental. Locke might not even have known he wanted out of his own life until the opportunity to change presented itself. Unfortunately, it turns out Robertson is a gun-runner, giving Locke more excitement than he was asking for.

Maria Schneider is around as a woman who takes part in Locke/Robertson's adventures. There's something off about her performance, which might be explained by this note from the IMDB: "Maria Schneider was suffering from excruciating back pain during filming, and would often be in a medicated muddle towards the end of the day when her pain medications kicked in. In one scene, Jack Nicholson had to physically prop her up." One sympathizes, but as I say, her performance is missing something.

It is one of the great mysteries of my movie-going life that I am so willing to rave about L'Avventura, with its ironic title, yet am generally resistant to Antonioni's other movies, in which, like with my favorite, "nothing happens". The Passenger fits right in ... there is the barest sketch of a plot, but I doubt The Maestro cared. (And this is when I trot out my oft-told anecdote about a friend who spent time with Antonioni ... my friend said people addressed the great director as "Maestro". Whether this was true, I can verify that my friend had both Antonioni and Monica Vitti in his address book, and this was long before email.)

I don't know why, but at this moment, I'm thinking more kindly of The Passenger than I am for his other non-Adventure movies.

And there's this famous penultimate shot, which is The Passenger in a nutshell: it's one of the most beautiful shots ever, it's hard to figure out how it was done, but while it's happening, a crucial plot point occurs off screen and we never find out what that plot point was. (The image is poor in this YouTube clip, which is sad. The Director of Photography was Luciano Tovoli.)

A sidenote: much of the film takes place in Andalucía, where my wife and I were going to vacation before the Virus changed everyone's plans. #144 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

french cancan (jean renoir, 1955)

Another movie for "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is out of order. Week 22 is called "Foreign Musicals Week".

"What's the point of watching a musical that's in a language you don't even understand?" you might ask. Well, as I'm not someone who's from an English-speaking country, I sometimes ask myself that too. But I still watch musicals in other languages, because music is universal! Hope you find a musical with a sound you like :-))

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen musical in a language different from one that you speak.

It's always nice to check out a Renoir movie I haven't seen ... he is on my shortlist of the greatest directors of all time. Yet this is only the seventh Renoir I have seen, and he has more than 40. I wouldn't mind having a Renoir festival, just gorge on his movies until I'd seen them all, but I also like to spread things around, watch things I wouldn't have encountered otherwise. That is, I am taking part in this Season Challenge because it exposes me to new films, not because it gives me an excuse to see French Cancan. Still, it's a happy coincidence that Renoir popped into my Challenge.

French Cancan is an interesting blend of artifice and the real. The entire film was shot on sets, and there is no effort to hide that fact. But the sets don't feel fake as much as they are extra-real. Everything is magnified, especially the colors. The film consciously calls on French impressionism ... Renoir's father was Pierre-Auguste Renoir, who frequently painted his family, including young Jean. The super-reality of the look of French Cancan reflects the way Renoir creates a world where art is paramount, where daily life can never reach the heights of art, and where the life of a performer is mostly realized on stage, often at the cost of an ordinary life.

The great Jean Gabin plays a cafe owner, Danglard, with an eye for new talent. During the course of the film, he drops one woman after another ... he cares about them all, but he cares more about performing, he brings out the performer in his partners, and moves on when another catches his eye. Near the end of the film, Danglard chastises his latest discovery, simultaneously revealing himself as a cad and making a case for the value of the performer:

Renoir loves all of his characters. When she is a laundry worker, Nini (Françoise Arnoul) is a lovely girl, although she is not an innocent. When she becomes a dancer, she blossoms. When she resists Danglard and the call of the stage, it is understandable, but when she finally gives herself over to the audience, she is fulfilled. But she isn't "better" than she was in the laundry, and the trade-off is clear: be like all the rest, or be a trouper. As usual, Renoir manages to imbue every step of Nini's life with respect. Not idealized respect ... French Cancan isn't a world where laundry workers are better than everyone else. But neither are troupers.

Everything culminates in the Cancan:

In the middle of all this, Renoir finds time for a cameo appearance by Edith Piaf as "Eugénie Buffet":

There are so many great performances here. Of special note is the smoldering Mexican star María Félix (at one point, she and Arnoul have a wonderful fight, described by Roger Ebert as "one of those movie scenes, much beloved in the taverns of Westerns, in which everybody in the room inexplicably joins in and starts pummeling each other.")

#473 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

losing it at the movies: last tango in paris (bernardo bertolucci, 1972)

Picking this up after another long break, this is the ninth in a series, "Losing It at the Movies," which is explained here.

In 5001 Nights at the Movies, Pauline Kael wrote of Last Tango in Paris:

Exploitation films had been supplying mechanized sex—sex as physical stimulant but without passion or emotional violence. Then, in this film, Bernardo Bertolucci used sex to express the characters’ drives. Marlon Brando, as the aging American, Paul, is working out his aggression on the young bourgeois French girl, Jeanne (Maria Schneider), and the physical menace of sexuality that is emotionally charged is such a departure from everything that audiences had come to expect at the movies that the film created a sensation. It’s a bold and imaginative work—a great work. When Brando improvises within Bertolucci’s structure, his full art is realized; his performance is intuitive, rapt, princely. Working with Brando, Bertolucci achieves realism with the terror of actual experience still alive on the screen.

In her full review, Kael famously compared the film to the first performance of Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" in 1913, which was a breakthrough in classical music and, legend says, inspired riots in its debut. There is no way for any movie to live up to such accolades, and anyone watching Last Tango today might be surprised that the famous critic was so overwhelmed by the film. Roger Ebert wrote, in 1995:

Watching Bernardo Bertolucci's "Last Tango in Paris" 23 years after it was first released is like revisiting the house where you used to live, and did wild things you don't do anymore. Wandering through the empty rooms, which are smaller than you remember them, you recall a time when you felt the whole world was right there in your reach, and all you had to do was take it.

This movie was the banner for a revolution that never happened.... It was not the beginning of something new, but the triumph of something old -- the "art film," which was soon to be replaced by the complete victory of mass-marketed "event films." The shocking sexual energy of "Last Tango in Paris" and the daring of Marlon Brando and the unknown Maria Schneider did not lead to an adult art cinema. The movie frightened off imitators, and instead of being the first of many X-rated films dealing honestly with sexuality, it became almost the last. Hollywood made a quick U-turn into movies about teenagers, technology, action heroes and special effects.

Make no mistake ... at the time, Last Tango in Paris was shocking. It was banned in some countries and censored in others. (Oddly, the version I watched this time, on HBO, was listed as NC-17 but the infamous butter scene was toned down by sticking a lamp over their midsections so we couldn't see exactly what was going on.)

The film is beautiful ... the cinematographer, Vittorio Storaro, worked many times with Bertolucci, and his camera movement can be smoothly ecstatic even when the scenes do not involve sex.

The IMDB tells us that "Marlon Brando later admitted in his autobiography 'Songs My Mother Taught Me' that after making this film, he vowed to never again become so vulnerable for a role." Once you've seen his performance, you know what he meant. You will often read that someone is so good, they don't even seem to be acting. But that's not what Brando does here. We know he's acting, but he submerges himself so efficiently that we realize his acting is more real than someone else's non-acting. His Paul is merciless, with himself as well as with others, even with his wife, dead by suicide. He projects his self-hatred onto people. He is never what you'd call a "nice man", but we empathize with him because his pain is so deeply felt.

If only the whole movie was as good as Brando, it would be as good as Kael thought it was. Maria Schneider had many terrible things to say in later years about her experience making the film, and I see no reason not to believe her. What is most important as we watch is that her Jeanne is only there to provide Paul with something to work with. Bertolucci never fills out her character, and while she is fine in the movie, there isn't any real effort to make her better than fine.

Last Tango in Paris is not Bertolucci's best film ... it's been a very long time since I've seen it, but my memory is that The Conformist ranks at the top. Nor is it Brando's best, although it is close, and as his last great performance, it encompasses all of his past glories, which are imprinted in our minds. #371 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

sacro gra (gianfranco rosi, 2013)

Another movie for "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." Week 17 is called "Golden Lion Week":

One of the three major film festival awards (the other two being the Palme d'Or at Cannes and the Goldener Bär, or Golden Bear from the Berlin IFF), the Golden Lion, or the Leone d'Oro, is the highest prize a film can receive at the Venice International Film Festival. Introduced in 1949, the Golden Lion represents the Lion of Saint Mark, which had appeared on the flag of the Republic of Venice when it was a sovereign state, and is one of the highest awards achievable in the film industry.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen Golden Lion winning film.

One good thing about the Letterboxd Challenge is that I see movies that aren't ordinarily in my wheelhouse. In fact, I'd never heard of Sacro GRA before.

One bad thing about the Letterboxd Challenges is that I sometimes see movies I don't like. And now that I've not only heard of Sacro GRA but seen it, I can say I didn't like it.

Gianfranco Rosi spent two years filming on the Grande Raccordo Anulare, a highway that encircles Rome. Another 8 months were spent editing. The result was a series of short vignettes of various people who live in the vicinity. They all get multiple appearances, but honestly, I didn't learn anything from the third time as I did on the first. The EMT guy was nice, the father/daughter living in a small room were OK, the guy who fished for eels was a guy who fished for eels, the guy who checked for bug infestation in palm trees was obsessively scientific. Any one of these people might have made an interesting half-hour short. Spreading their "stories" over 90 minutes without spending more than 10 or 15 minutes on any particular person results in a film that is barely worth saying awake for. I have no idea why it won a Golden Lion.

rocco and his brothers (luchino visconti, 1960)

At this point, Rocco and His Brothers is considered a cinema classic (#170 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time). It is sprawling in more ways than one, running almost three hours and broken into five segments, one for each brother, blending an operatic feeling with the tail end of Italian neo-realism (there is a lot of Rocco in Mean Streets). Roger Ebert wrote, "It is a combination that should not work, but does, between operatic melodrama and seamy social realism, which at no point in its 177-minute running time seem to clash, although they should. We buy the whole overwrought package, the quiet truth, the flamboyant excess, even the undercurrent of homoeroticism that Visconti never quite reconciles. The excitement of the film is that so much is happening, in so many different ways, all struggling to find a fusion."

It's an accurate description of the film, but for me, the absence of reconciliation between the various parts of the package, the inability to "find a fusion", brings Rocco and His Brothers down a notch. There are individual scenes of great power, but there is also an imbalance of tone that Visconti can't or won't overcome. Alain Delon is once again the most beautiful thing on the screen (he was 25), and if you want to be kind you can say he effectively underplays his part. I'm never sure if Delon is acting, and while his prettiness makes up for a lot, it doesn't add depth to his character. Katina Paxinou is over the top as Mamma, close to stereotype as the Italian mother who reacts emotionally to everything, yelling and crying. I found myself wishing she would quit turning up on the screen.

Annie Girardot, on the other hand, is the best thing about the movie. She plays a whore who gets involved with two of the brothers, and her character is just as much a stereotype as Mamma. But Girardot shows the human side of her character, and Visconti gives her room. Paxinou is brought down by the stereotype ... Girardot overcomes it. She is so good, she even rises above an unfortunate rape subplot.

Rocco and His Brothers is influential, expansive, full of wonderful moments. It falls short for me ... I much prefer The Leopard. But that shouldn't diminish the real accomplishments of Rocco.