Archive for Les Enfants du Paradis

U is (almost) for Eugenia Grandet

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 10, 2014 by dcairns

 CINE DORADO

The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama

U is (almost) for Eugenia Grandet

Do you cry often, Eugenia?”

There’s so little to do here. It helps pass the time.”

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Given his role in pioneering melodrama as a literary genre, it’s amazing how rarely Honoré de Balzac has been adapted for the screen. Cinemas are crying out for a film of Cousin Bette or A Harlot High and Low. (And, no, Des McAnuff’s 1997 travesty of Cousin Bette does not count!) The neglect is especially striking in the author’s native France. Just imagine Gérard Depardieu as the flamboyant master criminal Vautrin or Alain Delon as the spoiled and dissolute Lucien de Rubempré or Jeanne Moreau as the vengeful and venomous Bette. Balzac’s plots and characters are so much the stuff of movies that reading one of his novels may come eerily close to running a movie in your head. Do film directors tend to avoid Balzac, because they know they can’t compete? That being said, Marcel Carné’s Les Enfants du Paradis – possibly the all-time French masterwork – plays uncannily like a Balzac novel, but one that was created directly for the screen.

In contrast to most of his work, Balzac’s 1833 novel Eugénie Grandet has enjoyed a lively history of screen adaptations. This tale of a miser’s daughter and her unrequited love for her wastrel cousin was adapted by Rex Ingram as The Conquering Power in 1921 – a vehicle for his wife, Alice Terry, and his latest male protégé Rudolph Valentino. In Italy in 1946, a ‘calligraphic’ version by Mario Soldati launched the young Alida Valli on her international career. Eugenia Grandet – the one in question here – was made by Emilio Gómez Muriel in 1953. Despite a lavish dedication to el gran autor Honorato de Balzac, it moves the action from France in the 19th century to a small town in Mexico in the present day. If the move works (and perhaps it shouldn’t) that may be because the lifestyle and social structures depicted by the novel seem alarmingly unchanged.

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Unlike most Mexican films of the Golden Age, Eugenia Grandet does not star a resplendent diva along the lines of Dolores del Río, María Félix or Libertad Lamarque. The popular Marga López – who plays the harried and lovelorn young spinster – comes across (incredibly) as more of an actress than a star. Attractive but not particularly striking, López gives a performance that is subtle, nuanced and low-key (at any rate, by Mexican standards). The film, too, is stylistically less flamboyant than one by Emilio Fernández or Roberto Gavaldón. Its director, Gómez Muriel, was a sort of Mexican counterpart to George Cukor – a tasteful and self-effacing craftsman who excelled at directing ladies. Even when directing María Félix as a swashbuckling transvestite swords-woman (in La monja alférez/Sister Lieutenant in 1944) or as a ruthless bed-hopping film star (in La estrella vacía/The Empty Star in 1958) his mise-en-scène is disarmingly tasteful and restrained.

Eugenia Grandet is a film of small but disquieting moments, of stray details caught with cool precision by the camera’s eye. As it opens, an elegant black car drives hurriedly out through the gates of an imposing mansion; a gunshot rings out somewhere inside the house. All we see – when we venture inside for the next shot – is a dead hand stretched out on the floor, behind a desk. A few scenes later, the rich young playboy Carlos (played by the adorably named Ramón Gay) arrives at his uncle’s house in a tiny provincial town. He learns that his wealthy father has shot himself, because he was facing financial ruin.

As it happens, the day of his arrival is also the 21st birthday of his cousin Eugenia. Her rich but miserly father (Julio Villareal) ekes out a single bottle of cider among twenty guests, and frets at the extravagant overuse of electric lights. Some cousins have bought Eugenia a radio; they persuade her loving papa to risk a higher-than-normal electricity bill by plugging it in. Carlos arrives just in time to give the young lady her first real dance. (He does not yet know, you see, that his father is dead!) As the pair dance closer and closer – and father watches with mounting distaste – the wall socket the radio is plugged into bursts into flame. The next morning, old Grandet refuses to buy food for the young man’s breakfast. His long-suffering wife (Andrea Palma) sends the maid out to pawn one of her rings.

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The film’s obvious Hollywood parallel is William Wyler’s The Heiress (1949), based on the Henry James novella Washington Square. Another classic tale of a repressed spinster, a domineering father and a heartless but handsome young stud. Of course, Eugenia Grandet cannot hope to rival the visual richness of Wyler’s film. Yet its exploration of character and relationships is more subtle and, perhaps, more convincing. Montgomery Clift in The Heiress is all too obviously a fortune hunter; his romance with Olivia de Havilland is clearly bad news from the start. But the young man in Eugenia Grandet is too spineless and inert to be a schemer. Had he been allowed to marry Eugenia early on, their lives might have been no more disastrous than any others in the film. But when his uncle protests and sends Carlos to work in Brazil – the better to snaffle what’s left of the dead man’s fortune – the boy forgets his cousin because writing letters is simply too much trouble.

Gómez Muriel tells their story, not in thunderous operatic tableaux, but in fleeting close-ups. The hands of the lovers, clasped tenderly as they lie together on the grass. Eugenia’s hands alone, slowly tearing up the last of her letters to be returned unanswered. Grandet on his deathbed, catching a glimpse of the priest’s gold crucifix as he administers the last rites. The icon fills the camera, as the old man gasps out “Oro!” (“Gold!”) and falls back dead. Ten years later, a close-up of Eugenia as she waits at the airport for Carlos to return. Having inherited her father’s fortune, she has transformed herself into a woman of wealth and fashion (complete with a chic but hideous white snood). Her clothes are expensive but her face is chalky pale, her eyes lifeless and drained of all feeling. As she explains earlier on: “The tears that hurt most are the ones you keep inside.”

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Eugenia Grandet keeps a lot inside, in a way that Mexican movies – and, to tell the truth, Balzac novels – do not normally do. It has something of the Spartan splendour of Carl Dreyer’s Gertrud (1964) and improves immeasurably with each successive viewing. A Mexican film for those who don’t even like Mexican films? Perhaps. But also unmissable for those who do.

David Melville
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Anger…and Other Deadly Sins

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 26, 2008 by dcairns

Shadowplay guest blogger and part-time benshi film describer David Wingrove, who writes as David Melville, reports on Kenneth Anger’s appearance — or should one say MANIFESTATION? — at Dundee Contemporary Arts. Read it up!

On a grey and rainy August afternoon (in Scotland, that is not a contradiction) two friends and I took a train to Dundee to meet Kenneth Anger. He is a…well, I could say ‘living legend’ but that hardly seems to do him justice.

David Wingrove on his way back from Dundee, photographed by Fiona, who had just managed to get her camera to work.
For 60 years or so, Anger has been the uncrowned king of gay/experimental/avant-garde/underground cinema. (Just watch Fireworks (1947) or Scorpio Rising (1963) and slot in whatever adjectives fit best.) He is the notorious author of Hollywood Babylon and Hollywood Babylon II, still the most scabrous books of movie gossip. His long-promised Hollywood Babylon III lies buried under a heap of threatened lawsuits. An alleged Satanist and avowed disciple of Aleister Crowley, he was unwillingly linked (through his ex-boyfriend Bobby Beausoleil) to the grisly Charles Manson killings.

At four years of age, Anger played the Changeling Prince in Max Reinhardt’s 1935 film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, still Hollywood’s most purely intoxicating blend of Art and Kitsch. He is one of several distinguished survivors from that film – others include Mickey Rooney and Olivia de Havilland – and Warner Brothers’ failure to recruit one (if not all three) of them to do a commentary on last year’s DVD must count as a Crime Against Celluloid Memory. More than 70 years on, Rooney and Anger remain pals. Olivia may still be fuming at that snapshot of her in black lace lingerie (!) that Anger slipped into Hollywood Babylon II.

 

Either Dundee Contemporary Arts, or David Cairns Associates.

No wonder we felt a tad nervous, trudging through a downpour towards Dundee Contemporary Arts. (If the Great Beast didn’t come and get us, the wrath of Miss Melanie very well might.) So it’s a pleasure to say that, in person, Kenneth Anger is a joy. Gentle, soft-spoken, immaculately tanned, he looks a good two decades younger than his 78 years. In the bar after the show, he shared his enduring love of Shakespeare, commedia dell’arte and Marcel Carné’s Les Enfants du Paradis. “Not long ago, I went to Paris for a showing. My God, have you seen the state of the print? It was so horrible I hid my eyes and ran out of the theatre.”

 

Kenneth Anger, in Dundee.

Judging from that night in Dundee, Anger’s own work has been strikingly well preserved. Lucifer Rising (1981) gave us Marianne Faithfull as Lilith, Mother of All the Demons – looking eerily beautiful with her face painted blue. Invocation of My Demon Brother (1968) had a soundtrack by Lilith’s old flame, Mick Jagger. Cheekily, Anger cuts in a few near-subliminal shots of the Rolling Stones and their court, in between the all-male orgies and the Black Mass. Rabbit’s Moon (1950), with its lovelorn Pierrot lost in a moonlit wood, is an achingly gorgeous evocation of both Shakespeare and Carné. It has the wistful and fragile beauty of a Verlaine poem.

 

Mouse Heaven (1992) is Anger’s celebration of the original Mickey Mouse drawn by Ub Iwerks – a subversive, anarchic little imp – before Walt Disney turned him into an icon of all-American cuteness. One of the most purely joyous pieces of cinema I have seen, Mouse Heaven sparked a ferocious copyright row with Disney. The wounds, for Anger, are still raw. He confided his long-cherished ambition to blow up Disneyland. “If it really is ‘the happiest place on earth’ as the ads say, why do so many children come out looking disappointed? Just look at their faces! Kids know when they’ve been cheated.”

 

Anger’s more recent films, shot on digital video, bear witness to his enduring love of the male form. My Surfing Lucifer (2007) shows a gold-haired beach boy riding the sort of waves that, in Southern California parlance, are called ‘tubular’. Foreplay (2007) spies on a soccer-team as they stretch and limber up before a game. The sight is numbingly normal to the players themselves, yet richly homoerotic to Anger and his camera. Once the official programme was through, Anger invited the whole audience up to the gallery for a ‘private’ showing of I’ll Be Watching You (2007) – a piece of hardcore gay erotica. Two cute French boys make love atop a parked car, while a third cute boy watches on CCTV and…er, enjoys it too. This may be the sexiest film ever made by a man old enough to be your granddad.

 

But the highlight of the late work was the not-yet-officially-premiered Ich Will (2008). A chilling yet weirdly erotic montage of documentary footage of the Hitler Youth. (The title translates from German as “I want!”) Starting with idyllic Sound of Music-style gambolling amid the lakes and mountains of Bavaria, it builds up to a full-scale Nazi rally that evokes the nightmare world of Leni Riefenstahl and Triumph of the Will. Its menace is underlined, brilliantly, by the ominous tones of Anton Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony.

 

Invocation of my Demon Brother?

It’s not often one can go from Disney to Riefenstahl – from the Magic Kingdom to the Third Reich – with barely a hiccup in between. That is perhaps Anger’s unique gift. It was only on the dark, wet train ride back to Edinburgh that I got to pondering how similar these three artists really are. Walt Disney, Leni Riefenstahl, Kenneth Anger. All three create images that bypass our conscious mind and enter, direct and perhaps unbidden, into the depths of the id. We are aware, with other filmmakers, of a voice and a vision beyond our own. Disney, Riefenstahl, Anger…they speak from within.

 

The official premiere of Ich Will is set for the Imperial War Museum in London on 29 October. (All Souls Night, as Anger points out gleefully.) One shudders to think what the invited audience of elderly war veterans will make of it. Still, as Anger freely admits: “I’ve always enjoyed being a bit controversial.” That may or may not go down as the greatest understatement of the 21st century. But it will do very nicely for the first decade.

 

David Melville

 

Thanks to the Amazing Dr. Anger, to Yvonne Baginsky and Fiona Watson – who shared the experience – and to the fabulous staff at Dundee Contemporary Arts.

Special thanks to David for being there and writing it down.

 

Things I Read Off the Screen #498

Posted in Comics, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 1, 2008 by dcairns

Last night Fiona and I watched THE FIRST MAN INTO SPACE, a cheesy B sci-fi yarn directed by Robert “Corridors of Blood” Day and we couldn’t stop laughing at the titular astronaut’s “awed” expression as he goes beyond the infinite:

First fathead into space

I don’t think Spielberg would hire him.

The film was not so much interesting for what happened in it (Quatermass rip-off with and incredibly protracted opening set-up, half the film, it felt like — reminds me of late period Hammer films when the producers started writing them, and sure enough, turns out this was written by producers*) as for what you could read.

Maychew

Opening credits. Edited by Peter Mayhew? THIS Peter Mayhew? I guess that might explain why it’s on the primitive side. Wookiee’s aren’t known for their mastery of Russian montage.

I was psyched to read that there would be Electronic Effects, and I was NOT disappointed. It’s my opinion that most movies could be greatly improved by the addition of Electronic Effects. Even LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS could be gussied up by a Moog.

The Delgados

Roger Delgado was The Master in Dr Who — here he plays the Mexican consul, in an entirely unnecessary scene which might be intended as comic relief but they forgot to make it funny.

Sheree Winton was Dale Winton’s mother. For those of you outside the UK, Dale Winton appears as a game show host in a hallucination in TRAINSPOTTING — the role he was born to play. In real life, he IS a hallucinatory game show host.

Space Positioning?

Space Positioning!

Bloooood...

Just beautiful. Lumbering shadow shuffles across blood bank signage, a great B-monster moment.

Space Medicine?

Space Medicine?

Mr Potato Head

The fathead from the top ends up like this (cosmic rays — maybe Stan Lee or Jack Kirby saw this flick?), and it’s actually quite moving.

“Doctor? I’ve been searching for you… Everything seems strange and dark… I couldn’t find you! … Under this stuff, I feel like I’m suffering from some terrible disease… like I got no blood in my veins… I have no memory… Only an instinct to stay alive…until I found you… I’ve been groping my way through a maze of fear and doubt…”

With the dialogue delivered in agonized gasps, through an inflexible rubber mask, the scene attains a kind of cheap poetry, to use Orson Welles’ expression (describing stage magic at its best).

*Producers are just as likely to be good writers as directors, perhaps even more so. Unfortunately, they’re also in a position to hire themselves as writers, even when nobody else would ever consider them capable of writing ANYTHING. I don’t have a solution to this, beyond the utopian dream that people should be honest with themselves about their own abilities, or maybe seek a second opinion.