The Discreet Bourgeois

Possessed by an urgency to make sure all this stuff I love doesn't just disappear

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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. The Ceremony (Nagisa Oshima)
  2. Hands Across The Table (Mitchell Leisen)
  3. The Rocking Horse Winner (Anthony Pellisier)
  4. Golden Eighties (Chantal Akerman)
  5. Y Tu Mamá También (Alfonso Cuaron)
  6. Vagabond (Agnés Varda)
  7. In This Our Life (John Huston)
  8. Here’s to the Young Lady (Keisuke Kinoshita)
  9. Freud (John Huston)
  10. The Trial of Joan of Arc (Robert Bresson)

1 – The films of Nagisa Oshima define the term ‘pushing the envelope’. The Ceremony depicts an aristocratic family in post-war Japan. Despite their sense of hauteur and privilege, this family is a seething cesspool of every type of vice imaginable. I know that Oshima is using this family’s perversity to comment on the moral bankruptcy of Japan during and after the Allied occupation. I just wish I knew more about that. The film really succeeds as a family horror story, but it would be so much richer if I understood the political points Oshima is making.

2-Having thoroughly enjoyed Midnight and Easy Living last week, I looked forward to Hands Across The Table as an antidote to the creepiness of The Ceremony. It was pretty disappointing. Kind of a screwball mess that doesn’t really gel, despite the presence of the screwball goddess, Carole Lombard. I guess the caddish, selfish millionaire of Fred MacMurray really ruined the picture for me. Ralph Bellamy would have been much better for her to wind up with. Why is Bellamy always second fiddle in these comedies? He seems like such a solid fella. Maybe that’s what is being satirized?

3- Super impressed with The Rocking Horse Winner. I have never read the D.H.Lawrence story on which it is based, but I understand that it is a faithful adaptation. Though not as scary as in The Ceremony, we have another example of how a toxic family destroys innocence. It is taut and stunning to look at.

4- Sometimes knowing who the director of a film is raises expectations of what a film will contain. Golden Eighties by the great Chantal Akerman is pretty much a musical set in a hair salon and a clothing store in a Parisian shopping mall. The music is great, as is the choreography. There is a fantastic quartet of male singers commenting on the action in a most delightful way. Plus we get Delphine Seyrig (who was Jeanne Dielmann for Akerman some 10 years before). I thoroughly enjoyed it. I read criticism afterwards identifying Akerman’s hallmark feminism, anti-capitalism, contemplation of Holocaust survival, etc. I just didn’t see it. Were the reviews looking for this because it was an Akerman film?
I once wrote up a long interview with a famous (fictitious) Hollywood director who surveys his career with a famous film critic. At one point she brings up the three productions of Shakespeare’s plays that he put together for Wesleyan. The director laughs to himself. “I did it mostly for the money and I had fun working with the students. I had no agenda beyond that. But you should have read what the auteurists wrote about it, twisting themselves into pretzels convincing themselves that these little TV productions had all the motifs of my ‘serious’ work. It was just a job, for God’s sake!’


5- I had avoided watching Y Tu Mamá También. I am not sure why, because it is terrific. Cuaron is a master. After Roma he can do no wrong in my book. I read Y Tu Mamá También an indictment of male sexuality and of machismo. I am not sure if that is the general impression people have of this film, but I don’t know what else you can come away with.

6- Thanks to the Criterion Channel, I am belatedly relishing the films of Varda. I watched Le Bonheur two times in as many weeks. This time I watched what might be her most highly regarded film, Vagabond. It is a powerful but quite cagey film. I can’t imagine that Varda intends us to sympathize with her leading character. She is extremely unpleasant, exhibiting all the worst traits of adolescence unchecked. Yet something brought her to this tragic point. The question is: Is it from within herself, from society or both? I am leaning towards ‘herself’ because almost every encounter we see has people acting with kindness and help toward her. That is, until she alienates or insults them. We never get much of her backstory. She remains enigmatic and, to me at least, repulsive. But the film is magnificent. There is a wonderful ‘extra’ on the Criterion Channel explaining how Varda uses tracking shots in a very deliberate way to underscore the route to self-destruction the character is taking. It is brilliant.

7- Of course I watched In This Our Life because it starred Bette Davis, ’nuff said about the why. But it really is a kind of awful film. As much as I love her, Davis chews the scenery shamelessly. The understated and powerful performance of Olivia De Haviland really steals the picture, despite all of Davis’ flailing. It is hard to believe that this was the next movie John Huston made after his first film, the masterpiece The Maltese Falcon. What a work of art that is. Humor, suspense, drama, sex, everything is held in perfect balance until that final line. It was fun to watch Freud again after seeing this potboiler. Huston had his auteur hat on here, and channeled every German Expressionist trope he could think of to tell the story of Sigmund Freud. And it works beautifully.

There seems to be a convention of presenting the practices of psychology of the films of the late 60s/early 70. They are almost always in sharp black and white and they are present with many of the characteristics of horror films. I am thinking of Lilith, David and Lisa, Shock Corridor and The Three Faces of Eve. All of these movies present the story with the diction of a horror film. (Well, I guess Shock Corridor is a horror film.) To do this is contradictory, because on one hand the movies seem to be patting themselves on the back for presenting these illnesses sympathetically, but on the other hand, just in case you are getting too comfortable, we’ll make it a little scary. Later films like Ordinary People seem to have abandoned the need for horror.

8- Here’s to the Young Lady is a very early Setsuko Hara film (not horror film) so is therefore worth watching. But Kinoshite is not Ozu, under whose guidance we have seen Hara at her most brilliant. Kinoshite’s films are to be more sentimental which could explain his great popularity. Japanese Capra? Not that bad.
But still, you get to see the adorable Keiji Sada, who died tragically young.

Keiji Sada

9 – The Trial of Joan of Arc is Robert Bresson’s film of the same material as Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. Bresson mostly uses the transcripts of Joan’s trial for his script. It looks so much like the Dreyer film but without the overwhelming emotion. Two completely different yet wonderful takes on the same shameful historical incident.

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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. Shame (Ingmar Bergman)
  2. The Rite (Ingmar Bergman)
  3. Lilith (Robert Rossen)
  4. Il Gattopardo (Luchino Visconti)
  5. Easy Living (Mitchell Leisen)
  6. The Balcony (Joseph Strick)
  7. Midnight (Mitchell Leisen)
  8. The Conformist (Bernardo Bertolucci)
  9. Le Bonheur (Agnés Varda)
  10. Happy Together (Wong Kar-wai)


1- Shame and The Rite exemplify two sides of Ingmar Bergman’s work. Shame is a brutal analysis of a marriage going through an impossibly difficult situation. A war has broken out and our couple are in the middle of it, not understanding what either side really wants. But the war is the the Macguffin. The real point of the movie is watching Liv Ullman and Max Von Sydow’s characters adapt to and be broken by the the situation. It is harrowing to go through, but one thing it is not – obscure. I can’t say the same for The Rite. Created for Swedish television, it is full of inchoate gestures and obscure symbolism – the things that often mar some of Bergman’s work from the late 60s/early 70. It was only about 75 minutes long, but even at that length it was tedious. I have no idea what the point was. I welcome anyone’s input on this.

2- Lilith dates from the early 60s, a time when a lot of ‘adult-themed’ films were being made. Usually this is code for ‘sex’, but in the case of Lilith it is more mental illness porn. It is from the same period as David and Lisa, but that dip into life in a mental asylum was filled with scientifically dispassionate observation as well as a whole lot of sympathy for the main, troubled characters. It is great to see Jean Seberg in one of her very few film roles and it is a role that shows what a great actress she was. Warren Beatty is way out of his league, but he is pretty enough to look at. Peter Fonda kind of steal the picture as young man pining away for the dangerous Lilith.

3- The Leopard has been on my radar for decades. I read the novel by Lampedusa over 30 years ago and I still remember it as being impressive in its description of a man who’s way of life is changing, or perhaps has already changed. I imagined the film would be a sumptuous visual telling of this moving story. No dice. I am realizing that to my taste Luchino Visconti doesn’t make movies but make bloated operas disguised as movies. I love opera and I love movies, so what is the problem? The problem is that at over three hours, The Leopard is excruciatingly dull. Sumptuous to look at, but not a bit engaging. Burt Lancaster’s performance is hard to judge, since he is dubbed into Italian. The same thing with Alain Delon. Claudia Cardinale is speaking Italian, of course, but in true Italian film fashion she is also post-dubbed. The whole dialogue issue puts even more distance between the audience and the film. In the past few years I have watched The Leopard, Senso and Rocco and His Brothers. I found them all dull. At least Rocco had an engaging story. I wish I could have seen some of Visconti’s legendary opera productions at La Scala. I bet that would have been more his metier!

4- The Criterion Channel has been featuring the films of Mitchell Leisen this month. Despite his wonderful first name, I kind of had Leisen filed away in my cinematic brain as a poor man’s Lubitsch. I was so wrong. I had seen both Easy Living and Midnight years and years ago. The former I remembered loving and the latter I though was a solid B. Well, they are both A++ in my book now. In Easy Living he is working with a brilliant script by soon-to-be director Preston Sturges. I am so glas that Leisen directed this wonder. You can see how he reined in Sturges’ more slapstick and outrageous tendencies and he winds up with a near-perfect comedy. Plus you have Jean Arthur on board, everyone’s secret favorite comedy star. Plus I never realized how handsome the young Ray Milland was.

With Midnight we are in Lubitsch territory, not surprising since the script is by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, two of Lubitsch’s greatest collaborators. Mary Astor and Claudette Colbert are delightful in what seems like a dry run for The Palm Beach Story to be made in a few years. Delightful.

5- One of the delights of the Criterion Channel (are you tired of hearing me say that?) is that interesting films that you didn’t even know existed are there for the viewing. The Balcony by Jean Genet was turned into a film by Joseph Strick who is probably most famous for making a film of Ulysses. Really. I would love to know that story behind the making of this. The cast is incredible: Shelley Winters, Peter Falk, Lee Grant, Ruby Dee and Leonard Nimoy, for God’s sake. There is also a feeling of the forbidden in this work. Genet was a theater revolutionary, but I think that the play must have been tidied up for the film, although I found a lot of it kind of shocking. I wonder if Querelle by Fassbinder is any good? I bet Fassbinder did not water anything down!

6- Wong Kar-wai has his own grammar book for making films. Unlike other more pretentious directors, his film grammar is the only way his films could be made. Form is truly following function here. Happy Together is as gorgeous as any other of his films I have seen, but perhaps more emotionally devastating than even In The Mood for Love. The shifts from monochrome to color, the slowed-down jerky camera work, it all is organically coming from what the movie has to show you. I love that it is an examination of a Gay relationship, but that is not the main point. Dysfunction can happen no matter what the sexual identities are. I need to watch more Wong Kar-wai