The ’68 Comeback Special: Days of Matthew

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Video stores, those vanished pleasure palaces of yesteryear, used to be good places for picking up bits of conversation, Alan Bennett snippets of amateur movie analysis from the citizenry. I well recall a young fellow handling a VHS of the Christian Slater flick KUFFS and asking his friend, “This any good?”

“It’s alright.”

“Much action?”

“Uh.” A thoughtful pause, and then, helpfully, “He talks to the camera.” As if that were a form of action, or a decent, if weird, substitute for it.

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Several actors were talking to the camera in Cannes films of ’68, and one might guess the influence overall was Michael Caine in ALFIE, whose complicity with the audience makes him a kind of Richard III of shagging. But for several reasons I think the key influence on Witold Leszczynski’s ZYWOT MATEUSZA (DAYS OF MATTHEW) might be THE KNACK…AND HOW TO GET IT (1965) which predates the Lewis Gilbert picaresque bonkathon in having Michael Crawford briefly monologue at us. THE KNACK won the big prize in Cannes that year and so would have been widely seen by foreign filmmakers.

Matthew lives with his sister in an isolated house by a lake in the countryside. He seems to be either a little simple-minded or a little schizophrenically detached — more of a holy innocent than a clinical case one can connect to any actual condition. Like Crawford, his soliloquies are directed out, into the audience, but not consciously at them, so they feel more internal than Michael Caine’s smirking asides. Franciszek Pieczka is sometimes a little too cute in his intimacy with us, but nothing like as bad as his main competitor in the direct-address stakes at Cannes that year, Barry Evans of HERE WE GO ROUND THE MULBERRY BUSH, a bloke who will long live in infamy.

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Rather than a lot of plot, the film drifts through stunning gray-on-gray misty landscapes as we become more aware of our hero’s instability — he is overly impressed by a heron, is traumatized by a nearby tree’s destruction by lightning (he thinks it signifies that his sister will die or leave him), and is socially awkward around bikini-clad lovelies. These jiggling swimmers are the film’s least credible characters, seemingly invented to show how Matthew doesn’t know how to get to first base even with the most available, seemingly vapid and underclad females. It’s like putting Jerry Lewis in a scene with Monroe: sit back and watch the fireworks implode up the fumbling pyrotechnician’s sleeve.

But this isn’t the film’s point of comparison to THE KNACK. It’s vastly more melancholic, solemn and ethereal (though I always feel the Lester film has an autumnal sadness tucked away somewhere). But it does share some camera movements. Lester doesn’t normally move the camera. Probably less than Bresson. He told me he regards it as showing off. But THE KNACK is like his RASHOMON — he probably had the grips lay out track about five times. There’s a particularly striking moment when Rita Tushingham addresses the lens, not as a soliloquy, but as if it were sexual predator Ray Brooks’ POV. And the camera tracks right into a claustrophobic closeup of her — then cuts back to its starting point and does it again. Three times. It’s a disconcerting effect that throws the whole scene into a conflicted, uncertain state of unreality. Because if this is Brooks’ POV, he is either walking up to her or her isn’t, and if he is, he’s certainly not teleporting back to his starting point.

NOBODY has copied this sequence, that I know of, though Skolimowski’s student film EROTYK, made five years earlier, has something a little similar. Maybe it’s a Polish thing — Leszczynski doesn’t tie it to POV, but he repeatedly tracks straight forward in a scene, then cuts back to where he began. And he shares with Lester a love of the planimetric, architectural view.

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For some reason, he never really tracks in the forest scenes, though — a missed opportunity.

Even the photography resembles David Watkin’s work for Lester, and especially on Tony Richardson’s MADEMOISELLE.

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With its perfectly-composed shots, pervasive melancholia, music by Arcangelo Corelli (which sometimes the protagonist seems to be able to hear along with us, as if the woods were wired with loudspeakers nailed to trees like birdhouses) and haunting, allusive narrative sense (a dream sequence, weird silences and hums, lost time), this comes close to being a masterpiece — maybe it is. I was wary of the ending. As the film neared the 80 minute mark, with little narrative in play, I suspected that Matthew would either do himself a mischief or do it to someone else — characters like him typically do in movies, though in real life this isn’t actually that common. It’s the sane, normal-IQ people you have to watch out for. Sure enough, things don’t end well. It’s portrayed poetically rather than horrifically, and just bypasses the dangerous area of romanticizing this kind of tragedy.

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One of the most beautiful films of its year, and quite unknown.

Meanwhile — NATAN, part 2, over at Mostly Film.

9 Responses to “The ’68 Comeback Special: Days of Matthew”

  1. The Knack takes place in Autumn but I find no autumnal sadness in it whatsoever. First and foremost it’s GIRLS GALORE. For The Knack features the motion picture debut of Jane Birkin, Charlotte Rampling and Jacqueline Bissett.

    Birks gets the most screen time of these three — riding on the back of Ray Brooks’ motorcycle. She also absconded with the film’s composer, John Barry. Next stop? The purple paper in David Hemmings’ studio in Blow-Up

    Rampling is shown pouring a glass of water down the front of her wet suit in preparation for water-skiing — an image so sensual I’m sure it gave Alain Robbe-Grillet a fainting spell.

    Jackie Bisset gets only a scooch of screen time, as one of the girls lining up at Albert Hall in the climactic scene. But there are so many gorgeous women on view it’s overwhelming — even for an avowed gay man like me. Such beauty dazzles and delights.

  2. John Barry’s score does impart a dreamlike solemnity to some of the absurd proceedings, and maybe it’s the passage of time that makes even the carefree sections seem curiously poignant to me. We were all so much younger: I was -2.

  3. That’s Birks borrowing a chair from Michael Crawford in her very first moment of cinematic glory.

  4. 18 — the perfect age to see it! Certainly better than -2.

  5. Part Two of your “Natan” article is particularly compelling. I applaud your scrupulousness in divining what he did and didn’t do in the way of “pornography.” So much of film history is lost. You and your collaborators are to be heartily applauded for rescuing this very important piece of it.

  6. Thank you! So many nice tributes today — the screening here went well.

  7. […] at Shadowplay, David Cairns has one of the best of the lot, Days of Matthew, in our ’68 Comeback Special. He does a truly […]

  8. […] at Shadowplay, David Cairns has one of the best of the lot, Days of Matthew, in our ’68 Comeback Special. He does a truly […]

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