Film Forum were kind enough to send me a review copy of Marco Bellocchio’s acidic CHINA IS NEAR, so how could it not be this fortnight’s edition of The Forgotten? Here.
Archive for the Politics Category
Can’t discuss this one without spoilers, so watch out.
WHITE GOD, from Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó is a very impressive dog’s dinner of a film, channeling various influences through some powerful scenes and into a peculiar, visionary but confused parable. An abandoned dog is trained for illegal fights, then escapes and leads its fellow canine oppressed in a revolution on the streets of Budapest.
The first major influence, name-checked in the title, is Sam Fuller’s allegorical fright film WHITE DOG. Taken literally, that’s a film which doesn’t make sense — we’re asked to accept the retraining of a racial attack dog as a metaphor for racism in general. If the dog can be trained not to attack black people, maybe there’s hope for humans. Of course, it doesn’t follow, in any literal, logical way — Fuller is dealing with metaphor, but doing it via his usual high-impact, tabloid all-caps cigar-chomping way, so that some viewers don’t impute the film with the intelligence to be allegorical. A mistake — it knows what it’s doing.
Despite coming with a dedication to Miklos Jancso, WHITE GOD doesn’t quite inspire the same confidence, partly because it also owes a vast, unacknowledged debt to RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. But while the Hollywood blockbuster has a miracle breakthrough in genetics as plot device, so that the simian revolution, no less an allegory than WHITE GOD’s, can also make sense in science fiction terms, the Hungarian quasi-remake goes from a plausible first half, in which Hagen the beloved mongrel pet undergoes a believable transition to brutalized killer with filed fangs, its second half, showing him suddenly become undisputed alpha male of a whole dog home and leading them to escape and practically take over the city, is quite unbelievable in rational terms, and unprepared-for except by an opening sequence which I think most viewers assume is a dream. When we see the city deserted save for this vast wolfpack, we think “Well, that’s an arresting image, but no way that’s actually going to happen in this film.” But then it DOES — and for no reason.
In other words, the early part of the story, which has echoes of AU HASARD, BALTHASAR and CALL OF THE WILD, is more effective because more believable. It’s quite emotional and features amazing dog acting and dog wrangling. The humans are all a bit one-note, though the tough, uningratiating performance of Hagen’s 14-year-old owner, Zsófia Psotta, is admirable. A title at the start states that everything terrible is a thing that needs love — but the filmmaker doesn’t seem to have applied that charity to his human characters, so many of whom are uncomplicated shits, whose bloody death at the jaws of revengeful mutts seem intended to invite our applause.
But all sections of the film are achieved with some visual skill, including the epic scenes of uncivil unrest. The large-scale dog action is jaw-dropping, and the dogs are always credible, apart from a few shots of them running rampant in the streets where they don’t seem interested enough in their potential human victims. They’re just jolly dogs, running about on a spree.
The film has one more swipe up its sleeve, achieved with some grace and skill. Zsófia plays her trumpet to Hagen early in the story to calm him, so when the dog army converges on her dad’s place of work at the end (for unexplainable reasons: as John Sayles once put it, these monsters all have some kind of mysterious radar that leads them to their equivalent of Tokyo), she soothes the horde with music, which hath charms to etc. Lots of shots of dogs emoting. Someone wonders whether to call the authorities. No, says dad. Give them a little longer.
Is he aware that he’s quoting the last lines of PATHS OF GLORY? Mundruczó is certainly aware that he’s quoting the last scene, almost shot for shot. Remaking a WWI movie with dogs is not a new idea, however. Take it away, DOGVILLE SHORTS ~
JOY OF LIVING/CHE GIOIA VIVERE (1961) is an oddity in the René Clément canon — a comedy, a genre he rarely dabbled in, apart from his early short with Jacques Tati, SOIGNE TON GAUCHE and an early feature with Noel-Noel, LE PERE TRANQUILLE — an Italian film, though Clement was open to co-productions throughout his career, shooting THE WALLS OF MALAPAGA/BEYOND THE GATES in Italy in 1949 and THIS ANGRY AGE in Thailand (and Cinecitta) in 1957 — a period movie that’s NOT set during the French occupation, but just after WWI in Rome.
(Side-note: though Clément and Truffaut were vocal in their disgust for one another’s work, the rambunctious title sequence here feels like it may have influenced JULES ET JIM’s, though it’s not as chaotic — whereas Truffaut basically grabbed the trim-bin and emptied the off-cut footage into his movie — leading to what Scorsese called ” the most exhilerating thing I’d ever seen” — Clément can’t help but stick to some kind of narrative sequence. His approach is less bold but more skilled, which is the relationship between old and new waves in a nutshell.)
Alain Delon, the director’s most frequent leading man, plays Ulysse, a glib and plausible young man who accepts a job from the fascists, searching for a printing press that’s been churning out anarchist leaflets. But when he finds the place, he falls in lust with the daughter of the lead anarchist, played by the extraordinary-looking German actress Barbara Lass, whose eyes are bigger than Barbara Steele’s, wider apart that Gene Tierney’s, and seem constantly on the verge of breaking loose from her head altogether to pursue independent destinies. She’s an actual flesh-and-blood Margaret Keane painting, and she somehow makes it work. Maybe because she projects a human sweetness, which tames the uncanny Na’avi qualities of her funhouse countenance. At any rate, when she and Delon are on the screen together, in Henri Decae’s exquisite framings (they needed a wide screen for those eyes), there’s almost too much beauty to take in.
As in THE WALLS OF MALAPAGA, Clement is as obsessed with crumbling architecture as he is with plot or character, and the Piranisian tableaux of this film are to die for. And it’s pretty funny ~
The period setting and frankly astonishing scale of the enterprise (Clement’s two Oscar wins obviously equipped him to command considerable resources — he blows up the Arch of Constantine!) connect this movie with romps like THOSE MAGNIFICENT MEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINES and THE GREAT RACE, but it’s more controlled than those, even if it doesn’t have a linear chase plot to focus it. And, oddly, Clement proves better at organizing visual gags than his colleagues — a food-fight between anarchists and fascists is particularly impressive. And there’s just enough seriousness underlying the hi-jinks — Delon’s character is sufficiently deceitful that we worry he might go blackshirt at any moment if a pretty enough girl shows up on the other side — the dark days ahead for Italy hover low on the distant horizon — the film’s affection for the family of anarchists, partly justified by their being so irrelevant to the match of history, is somehow reconciled with a horror of bomb-throwing and acts of terror. The genuinely gripping climax has fascist stooges planting bombs around a huge public exposition (with balloon ascensions, roads paved with German helmets, and the first pre-fab house as part of the attractions) while Delon scoots around after them, gathering up the infernal devices in a perambulator. A man pushing a pram is slightly comic, a stunningly handsome man pushing a pram while in fear of being imminently smithereened is really very funny indeed.
A piece of espionage worthy of Pynchon — illicit communication lines in prison, running through the plumbing system!
The film stops capering just long enough for a chilling exchange between Delon and his old school friend, now a committed fascist, who warns him, “You’ll be persecuted for the rest of your life.” Delon replies with the brilliant, and unanswerable “And you’ll be a persecutor for the rest of yours.”