Archive for Last Year at Marienbad

The Death of the Arthur: Guinevere Off Course

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 4, 2023 by dcairns


The retitling, to emphasise stabbing over kissing, is like the mirror version of THE DEATH OF ROBIN HOOD getting retitled ROBIN AND MARIAN.

I can never quite believe Camelot’s stonework in this one. It seems like a grooved impasto of paint rather than carved stone. It’s close, but it doesn’t quite compel belief, like Cornel Wilde’s out-raj-us accent. It’s really a shame he doesn’t seem to taunt anyone in this film, it would make the MONTY PYTHON connection come shimmering to life.

Not for the first time, though, I’ve judged the film too hastily and harshly — the big battle with the Viking raiders has a slight plot purpose — when Lancelot returns, he has his slain pal carried on his tabard. Seeing this from a distance, Guinevere thinks he’s dead, and Arthur notices her excessive grief. The plot has thickened. Good acting by Wallace and Aherne, a couple of fine thesps.

Ron Goodwin’s romance music is nice — though it doesn’t touch his key works, 633 SQUADRON’s rambunctious theme, and the Miss Marple theme from the Margaret Rutherford films. He also scored the ’73 GAWAIN AND THE GREEN KNIGHT, which is relevant to our purposes.

The very unchivalric adultery is the talk of the court — Lancelot is tempted to slip away back to Brittany, but Guinevere urges him to visit her bedchamber before he leaves…

Conversation about falconry: we learn that Modred’s adorable little feathered friend is called Griselda, which makes her seem like a witch’s familiar, which might well be the case. Some versions of the saga make Modred/Mordrid/Mordred the son of Morgan le Fey, who is usually a sorceress, so he’s not far removed from black magic. But this is a disappointingly magicless Camelot, in which Merlin’s expertise is limited to knowledge of soap.

Griselda is my favourite character, and she’s only been in one shot.

The sex scene — it’s 1963 so there’s implied nudity with both characters in bed and who knows if anyone’s got one foot on the floor? — confirms my suspicions about Cornel Wilde, as producer, having a hand in the infamous “cunnilingus scene” in THE BIG COMBO, where Richard Conte descends out of shot and Jean Wallace continues to react fervently to some unseen stimulus — because they do the same thing here! True, Wilde has some unmuffled dialogue from below frame, but what’s happening in the gaps between sentences? Wallace’s equally fervid performance provides a hint. The image is fuzzy, veiled by the bed’s translucent canopy, but the implication is pretty clear. Joseph H. Lewis’s claim to have slipped the suggestive scene past Wilde on his day off looks weaker — I love JHL but he wouldn’t be the first director to steal credit for an idea.

It’s not at all clear why Lancelot has chosen to visit his love wearing full-length chainmail. I can’t decide if this is more or less loopy than the full plate mail rogering scene in EXCALIBUR. At least Uther was on his way into battle, so there was a reason for having it on (but perhaps not while having it off).

Some spirited action as the lovers are apprehended post fragrante delicto — L escapes, G is caught.

A pyre is built to burn Guinevere, and this is all so like the turn the plot takes in CAMELOT that I’m wondering how much of this is TH White, but no, it seems to be part of fairly early myths, just stuff I wasn’t familiar with (and not covered by Boorman).

Camelot has a hunchbacked, cackling bellringer, just to make things feel sufficiently classical.

Arthur, it turns out, is responsible for a law which says adulteresses must be burned — he’d like to make an exception, but this would destroy his claim to be a just king. The trouble with this is one is disinclined to sympathise today with any king who would make such a law. One feels King Arthur is supposed to be an admirable figure but this movie undercuts him at every chance. His cuckoldry is muchly of his own making — he throws Lance and Gwen together, particularly by barring her from hunting, which leaves the poor girl with nothing to do except invite the oral attentions of a gleaming Frenchman.

Jean Wallace at the stake — her performance is uncomfortably reminiscent of her performance in the bedchamber, moaning and perspiring at something below the edge of frame. Toothless yokels in fright wigs watch the show, gloating: it’s not absolutely clear why Camelot is a good thing if it provides shelter to these abominations. Wilde’s camera lingers on a Wilfred Brambell type with sideshow enthusiasm.

Lancelot rides in and rescues his girlfriend — I think it’s a mistake of the script to have him kill a loyal knight in his previous escape, rather than here, where it will amp up the dramatic stakes, if you’ll pardon the expression, at the most effective moment. And the lack of swordfighting here makes the rescue seem rather easy.

Uncanny scene where Gawain rides up to a castle and taunts Lancelot. This is backwards — the Frenchman ought to do the taunting, we all know that.

Another good bit of direct cutting (influence of nouvelle vague, already felt in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA) — Lancelot agrees to fight Gawain, but we cut directly to the END of the battle, with Gawain defeated and at knifepoint. I’m always happy to take my hat off to a bold elision. Lancelot says he’s going to give Gawain a message for Arthur — and in another bold cut, this one more CITIZEN KANE than LAWRENCE, Wilde cuts to Gawain delivering the message, the framing putting him at just the angle we saw Lancelot at (different distance from camera though), so that he appears as Lancelot’s mouthpiece or surrogate. Neat.

Lancelot’s offer is to surrender himself for punishment, while Guinevere leaves the country. Instead, Arthur lets them all leave, except Guinevere, who is to return to him and not get burned, which is slightly unaccountable except as sheer vacillation.

Four shots: Lancelot looks down from the battlements at a glass painting of Arthur’s camp added to a real (but rear-projected) coastal landscape. Merlin escorts Guinevere through an impressive crowd scene with a glass-painting castle at the top. Then, after all that trouble, the close shot of M & G is an unconvincing rear-screen process shot, no doubt for some practical reason which couldn’t be helped on the day, but which really lets the sequence down. Guinevere’s POV, dollying towards her destiny, Arthur’s darkened tent — it feels like the forward POV dolly towards the execution posts in PATHS OF GLORY, and I bet that’s what Wilde had in mind.

An ellipse too far? Arthur is slain by Modred offscreen, which ought to have been a juicy scene (the film is quite long, admittedly, but CAMELOT would be much longer). In fact, everybody’s dead or dying — Merlin, Adrienne Corri, even Gawain’s one-lunging it after a sticky battle.

Without that shocking regicide, the final confrontation loses a lot of emotional power, I feel. It’s a large scale affair, though. Shot with long shadows on the ground — they must have been scared of losing the light — one of the shadows looks to be the camera crew, but suitably disguised with shrubbery and whatnot — there are no Wilhelm screams but one ludicrous squawk gets repeated several times in this film. Some mildly complicated strategy is attempted but not explained, so I wasn’t too clear on it. A horse steps on a dead man’s leg — I hope he was a dummy. Another helmet gets cloven open.

Editor Thom Noble repeats a shot of a fallen horse thrice — first almost subliminal, then longer, then still longer. I guess he’s going for a MARIENBAD effect but it doesn’t quite come off.

In the midst of this, or rather out of the midst, Lancelot manages to get Modred alone and they have a speedy (slightly undercranked) duel, ending with another ambitious gore effect — L chops right into M’s shoulder. Cue Wilhelm squawk again. To get the effect, poor Michael Meacham has to wear an absurd third shoulder, like an American football player’s padding, for his co-star and director to sink a sword into. OK, I admit I laughed.

It’s not clear what the political ramifications of this shoulder-chop will be, but Guinevere becomes a nun. When Jean W says “When first I was at the convent at Glastonbury” Fiona misheard it as “concert at Glastonbury.” So, there’s a parting forever scene. It’s not not moving. Well, all right, it is not moving. It seems perfunctory, and Lancelot falls in with the idea of his lover marrying Christ a bit too readily — the filmmakers don’t want to do a blasphemy. Again, ROBIN AND MARIAN is a more powerful treatment of this kind of thing because it has a director downright hostile to religion. But I’m always amazed by how much that film moves me, since the love story was entirely secondary in importance to its director. Maybe the focus being elsewhere allowed it to come out more strongly, or maybe it was the actors, who were not available to Cornel Wilde.

SWORD OF LANCELOT has enough invention for a film one-quarter its length, and it’s not all good invention, but some of it is. So I now consider Wilde a worthwhile subject for further examination.

11) Udine – Pontecorvo

Posted in FILM, Painting with tags , , , , , , , on April 19, 2022 by dcairns

For Pontecorvo’s episode of 12 REGISTI PER 12 CITTA’, he has Ennio Morricone return to the fold, though Morricone was born in Rome and Pontecorvo in Pisa. The subject, however, is Udine.

The two men had a closer than usual collaboration, actually sharing the composition credit on BATTLE OF ALGIERS. When Pontecorvo visited Edinburgh International Film Festival I asked him, at the q&a, how this came to be, unknowingly triggering one of his favourite anecdotes. I will retell it in comments upon request, but you can hear the great man retell it on the extras of the Criterion disc.

Pontecorvo — who gets a bad rep over that tracking shot in KAPO, which isn’t, to me anyway, particularly offensive — but I can understand the principle — spends a surprising amount of time on the landscape OUTSIDE Udine, but this is worthwhile stuff.

The VO begins with Boccaccio’s Decameron, so that our journey to the city seems to cover time as well as space — from the timeless drives and mountains the author might have seen, past vineyards and villas, to the city itself, which we reach via a long pan across conjoined 19th-century illustrations.

The tracking shot in Udine, the first anyhow, occurs along a portico, looking out at Roman statuary, pulled along by the flow of traffic in the intervening street. It seems unlikely that it would offend either Rivette or Daney, who took such exception to GP’s earlier move.

Mostly, however. Pontecorvo prefers to pan sedately. Once bitten.

The VO is a touch touristic — though it does more than just dole out facts and dates, it doesn’t aspire to poetry. We learn that there’s “an unusual Tiepolo” which tries out new painting techniques, but not what those techniques are. No time? Then why bring it up? Sometimes you just need to FIND time.

Another tracking shot, a nice one, passing through the galleries of the Archbishop’s Palace — frescoes by Tiepolo. Like a number of his fellow directors, Pontecorvo is moved to MARIENBAD-like glides here — but we should note that such explorations of screen space are an Italian invention, dating back to CABIRIA (though we could also note that the first camera dolly was constructed for that film by a Frenchman Spaniard, Segundo de Chomon).

We learns that the Archbishop’s library contains a collection of heretical and sorcerous texts — I wish we had time to leaf through a few volumes, preferably illustrated. But we do get to gloat at some gargoyles.

“Udine, a city made for man,” concludes the VO, a touch weakly. It’s one of the results of a piece being uninspired: you can’t think of any solutions that would pep it up. But when you see a work like the Antonioni, Bertolucci or Zeffirelli shorts, the solutions seem obvious. It can’t just be because they had better cities. Udine looks pretty nice.

Double Double Cross

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 8, 2022 by dcairns

PIEGE POUR CENDRILLON — A TRAP FOR CINDERELLA — Sebastien Japrisot’s twisty thriller adapted by Jean Anouilh and directed by Andre Cayatte — is very interesting.

Dany Carrel excels in, effectively, a triple role. She plays cousins — one rich one poor — there’s been a fire — the poor one is dead, the rich one is recovering from surgery, and amnesiac. Now, we’ve seen some plot twists, between us, so we start suspecting early on. Could it be…? Japrisot is ahead of us, he has further twists stacked up, waiting to land. Distracted by our smugness, we fall into his trap.

Carrel was typically cast as a sexpot gamine, her trademark move, like ROCKY HORROR’s Little Nell, was to pop out of her top. But she was always good, and could be REALLY good, as she is here, distinguishing three roles, particularly the most sympathetic, the post-op burns victim, hands in white cotton gloves, fingers curled. A very good physical performance, but her eyes seal the deal.

Playing the two schemers, she resorts to her sexy bag of tricks. Playing the survivor, rendered innocent by memory loss, she’s liberated by no longer having to worry about being cute or sexy. She’s like a newly-landed alien or angel.

The b&w cinematography of Armand Thirard (like Carrel, a Clouzot favourite, though for different reasons) is lambent, sharp, clinical. And there’s quite an extraordinary score by Louiguy: murmurous, muffled, distant, like a memory you can’t quite recover.

Cayatte was old-school, but this is 1965 and he’s clearly been paying attention. Jumps into flashback are accomplished by straight cutting. Amusingly, the clinic where Carrel recuperates has design echoes of MARIENBAD — the perfect place to get your memory back, or maybe someone else’s.

Cayatte hands the splitscreen and other tricks with aplomb — the cousins’ first meeting is a shot/reverse-shot with a garage elevator — Carrel#1 filmed in a pan from the elevator, through the gridwork, Carrel#2 with a high-angle circular move. It’s so stylish it distracts from the illusion being sold. By the time the two girls do appear in the same frame, we more or less believe they’re both there, and the director has a bunch of alternatives to the usual 50/50 vertical split shot:

The success of LES DIABOLIQUES has obviously prompted this one, but it has more humanity. I do find humanity in Clouzot, but LD is too concerned with constructing a trap for its audience to really attain consistent empathy — or, at any rate, the final outcome is nasty and sly rather than emotional. Here, the tricks ultimately bring us to a response richer than just “ah-hah!”