No matter if his protagonists are deranged or distraught, happy or sad, or if his stories are light or dark, comedic or tragic, the films of Pedro Almodóvar are usually at the very least enjoyable. Even at their most disturbing, there is something inescapably jubilant about his lavish use of color, his vibrant characters, and his unceasing passion for life and filmmaking. And when he aims to make something purely amusing, the results can be astonishing. It is for all of these reasons that Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, surprisingly the first Almodóvar film released by the Criterion Collection, is such a treat.
In this 1989 feature, made just after Almodóvar’s award-winning breakthrough Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Victoria Abril stars as junkie porn star turned respectable leading lady Marina Osorio, the object of affection and obsession for Antonio Banderas’ Ricki, a newly released mental patient. Prior to Ricki’s discharge, the institution director tells him he is “not a normal person,” something that should be obvious, and certainly is to the audience, but he is nevertheless set free. Meanwhile, Marina is on the set of a rather unassuming horror movie where she is under the watchful eye of her sister Lola (Loles León)—wary of her sister’s potentially returning drug habit—and the voyeuristic eye of the film’s lustful director, Máximo Espejo (Francisco Rabal), who is partially paralyzed due to a stroke and is confined to his mobile “electric chair.”
Once Ricki arrives on the set of the fictional film, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! begins to mirror the goofy horror picture in production. After he dons a ridiculous long hair wig, Ricki wanders in the background with his eye on Marina, but when he finally gets her attention, she brushes him off. More drastic measures will be necessary. While these sequences and those when Ricki first arrives at Marina’s apartment are played like a horror film, with his stalking around and the suspenseful score by Ennio Morricone, the tonal fluctuations of the film betray any perceived terror. It’s hard to take any threat too seriously when Almodóvar is clearly having so much fun with it.
Apparently assuming the way to a woman’s heart is through home invasion and kidnapping, Ricki forces himself through Marina’s door, headbutts her, and proceeds to tie her up. He does this, he says, so that they will get to know each other; he’s quite sure she will love him. Though he is clearly not of sound mind and has an evident capacity for violence, he is quickly apologetic and remains certain that she will, eventually, succumb to his charms and they will live happily ever after. He has even given her a heart-shaped box of candy (“Nice touch, huh?” he proudly asks), so come on, how bad can he be? At one point, the editor of the film within the film says of her work, “It’s more a love story than a horror story,” and ultimately, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! itself ends up being one unconventional love story.
So much of what defines Almodóvar’s cinema is on display in this film. To begin with, nearly every character is charged with a sexual current, their physical needs and mental preoccupations constantly striving toward carnal gratification. And as is typical with Almodóvar, this is more often than not played for laughs, particularly as the individuals struggle to balance appropriate looking and suggestive dialogue with actual contact. The instant sexual connection between Ricki and Marina gives their particular situation a precarious tension conveyed by their fluctuating positions in frame and their evolving active/reactive behaviors as they progressively grow more at ease with each other. Almodóvar frequently holds a single shot in order to witness their budding yet awkwardly promising relationship of comfort and familiarity. With characteristically little camera movement, save for occasional and generally innocuous track or dolly, and with relatively limited editing, Almodóvar’s greatest stylistic touch are his carefully arranged compositions, unique angles, and his orchestration of characters in relation to each other and their setting.
It is stated that Rabal’s filmmaker character is known as an actresses’ director, and the same could easily be applied to Almodóvar. From Carmen Maura to Penélope Cruz, he has worked with some exceptional women, and the roles he creates allow them to prosper to their fullest potential; Abril and León are no exception here. Banderas considers his role in this film a sort of culmination of his prior work with Almodóvar, and though he is dangerously kooky and this movie as much as any helped put him on the international map, it is the ladies who turn in the most engaging and multifaceted performances.
Those who work with Almodóvar are quick to acknowledge his influence and his importance in their careers. Among the special features on the Criterion disc is an extended documentary on the making of Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! and on it,Banderas, Abril, León, and Rossy de Palma, among others, all speak glowingly of Almodóvar and his impact. The features also include a conversation between Almodóvar and Banderas, delightful footage from the film’s 1990 premiere party in Madrid, and an interview with Sony Pictures Classics copresident Michael Barker. The accompanying booklet features a piece about the film by Almodóvar, a conversation between Kent Jones and Wes Anderson, and an interview with Almodóvar.
With a pleasant late ’80s flair — in clothes, set design, and character accessories — Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! is an excellent middle period Almodóvar feature, emblematic of so much of what brought him to international prominence: the dark comedy, the campy melodrama, the sexuality, the quirkiness. Save for the final shot though, it hasn’t quite attained the subtle emotional quality that some of his more recent films achieve (Volver, Broken Embraces). At this point in his career, Almodóvar had also not yet fully developed the “new humanism,” as Barker puts it, that marked later films like Talk to Her and All About My Mother. The film does maintain, however, the crucial liberal minded lack of judgment that makes much of Almodóvar’s work so personable.
In any event, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! is a testament to the frequently strange path love takes to bring its companions together, and though more orthodox methods are suggested, it is utterly fantastic to watch this couple connect by whatever means necessary.
REVIEW from SOUND ON SIGHT
A House of Nightmares: Douglas Sirk’s Sleep, My Love
Sleep, My Love begins with a nightmarish state of panic as Alison Courtland (Claudette Colbert) wakes to find herself inexplicably on a Boston-bound train. She doesn’t remember boarding the train. In fact, the last thing she recalls is going to sleep in her New York City home. But here she is, and other passengers say they saw her at the station. In her purse, she finds a gun. As trains barrel down the tracks, blinding lights and piercing horns accentuate Alison’s sudden, bewildering, and terrifying situation. Back at her house, Detective Sgt. Strake (Raymond Burr) follows up on Richard W. Courtland’s call about his missing wife. Richard (Don Ameche) concurs that the last he saw his wife she was in her bed. He tells Strake he’s worried this time … This time? Alison calls to reassure Richard with her whereabouts, just after Strake notices that Richard is hurt. It’s only a superficial wound, he explains, an accident while cleaning his gun.
The above has all taken place in the first ten minutes of this 1948 film, directed by Douglas Sirk. It’s a gripping opening that dramatically sets the scene for what is a very solid film noir. As the picture progresses, it’s revealed that the woman who helped Alison in Boston, Grace Vernay (Queenie Smith), gave a false name. Back in New York, she joins Daphne (Hazel Brooks), who is introduced in slinky, black lingerie; the vampish beauty, clearly up to no good, is something else, and frankly, there’s not enough of her as the film goes on. She and Grace are also with Charles Vernay (George Coulouris), a photographer and co-conspirator who soon shows up at the Courtland house telling Alison he is Dr. Rhinehart, there to help her with whatever it is that ails her. Sleep walking? Some sort of mental illness? Something, perhaps, not so natural? We also meet Bruce Elcott (Robert Cummings). Far more than the others, he seems decent, maybe even one of the good guys.
One of Sleep, My Love’s strongest attributes is its initial ambiguity. So much has been brought up and left out in the open, unexplained and primed for imminent ramifications, that the possibility of everyone having an angle seems perfectly plausible. All we know for sure is that a scheming group of deceitful, fallacious individuals is manipulating poor Alison. The motive is unclear, until, that is, we discover that this group also includes Richard, who is romantically linked with Daphne. When Bruce takes Alison out for an evening, the film pulls back. The night of revelry gives her just what she needs. And we needed it to. A frivolous trip to a wedding provides Alison and the audience a brief respite, a chance to catch our breath and put everything together before jumping back into the plot.
It would be ideal if Sleep, My Love could sustain this level of breathless energy and suspense, but perhaps inevitably, as more is exposed the less creatively mysterious it all becomes. And once it’s clear that Bruce begins to suspect something and starts his own investigation, we realize Alison will be safe and some of the suspense diminishes, or at least it transfers to his inquiry rather than her wellbeing. To the credit of the screenwriters — St. Clair McKelway and Leo Rosten, working off his own novel — the film hits the ground running and even when it loses steam it’s still never anything less than interesting. Even when it establishes the relatively commonplace device of a husband slowly poisoning his wife, the film is original enough to throw hypnosis into the mix, resulting in an additional level of potential danger for the female protagonist. The drugging is bad enough, but with the psychological torment, Sleep, My Love surprisingly strays from a standard thriller and enters into a territory that borders on horror. This is particularly the case when Charles, in the guise of Dr. Rhinehart, repeatedly shows up to toy with Alison, appearing as a frightening vision to this unstable, fragile woman.
Most famously, and understandably, known for his extraordinary melodramas, these films nevertheless make up only a portion of Douglas Sirk’s output. But if one draws parallels between these films and a film like Sleep, My Love, there are some interesting connections. First and foremost is the use of a residence as the domestic arena against which the drama unfolds. The home here serves part of the same function as in these melodramas, insofar as it’s a realm of externally perceived stability but, behind those doors, as so many Sirk films have shown, lays a far more troubling reality. Working within the conventions of noir, Sirk simultaneously makes the interior of the house itself a vibrantly duplicitous setting, one that fluctuates as darkness falls. By day, all is typically bright and right; for the most part, it’s welcoming, well lit, and secure. By night, however, these same locations, crucially never fully lit once in the dark, bring out the hidden cruelty. (Even in the daytime, note how the atmosphere changes when Charles/Dr. Rhinehart closes the blinds, turning light into darkness in more ways than one.) During the wonderfully staged conclusion, illumination, or the lack thereof, plays a crucial role as lights are first out, then turned on, shot out, turned on, etc. As the tension mounts, the characters try to light the home as a way of ascertaining protection, but in this genre, that in itself is a key obstacle. And by the very end, one of the key characters declares, “In a little while, we’ll be out of this house forever,” as if the house itself were the catalyst for what had ensued. Sirk’s homes frequently play an integral role in his narratives and formal designs, but rarely do houses as dynamic structures take on the qualities this one does.
Again, Sirk’s stunning use of color in his later melodramas is probably what he is most lauded for, and, again, rightly so. But here with this black and white feature, his images need no such embellishment. A comparison with Hitchcock is to be expected with a film like this, so let it be said, as Hitchcock did so well, Sirk too utilizes an array of camera maneuvers and angles to provide a visual association with the frenzied, anxious tone of the film. (Having Joseph A. Valentine as his cinematographer certainly helped.) This works especially well in the interior sequences, not only because that’s where the tension mounts, but it breaks up the enclosed spaces and freshly presents the recurring ones, avoiding the potential outcome of bound, tedious familiarity.
Claudette Colbert, obviously a more than capable actress (with an Oscar and two nominations by this point), does not, unfortunately, get much to work with here. She essentially starts the picture in a state of fretful hysteria and pretty much remains that way, save for perhaps the night out with Cummings, where she’s then in a state of drunken hysteria. On the other hand, Ameche is delightfully sinister. He plays Richard as a competent, slick manipulator, sharply covering all his bases. He’s no von Stroheim, but he is fun to hate.
Sleep, My Love was distributed on Blu-ray by Olive Films in April. This Chicago-based company may not have the name recognition of, say, the Criterion Collection, but with recent releases such as Men in War, Caught, Stranger on the Prowl, and The Pawnbroker, to say nothing of its total output in the past year, it has established itself as a fine source for lesser-know but still exceptional works by major filmmakers. Sleep, My Love is one such film.
This REVIEW was originally published by FILM INTERNATIONAL
You really can’t go wrong with any of the 16 titles included in Herzog: The Collection, the recently released limited edition Blu-ray set. This stunning compendium features several of the incomparable Werner Herzog’s finest fiction and documentary films (including many that fall somewhere between those categories), most available for the first time on Blu-ray. Though the strongest cases could be made for Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo, it would be difficult to necessarily pick the “best” film included here, but one movie that has always stood out as being among Herzog’s most unusual is Stroszek, from 1977. Well received upon its release, and now recognized as one of the German filmmaker’s finest films, Stroszek is something of an enigma in Herzog’s career full of enigmatic works.
The picture follows three Berliners as they flee their homeland for the safe haven that is Wisconsin. There is the prostitute Eva, played by Eva Mattes, primarily known for her collaborations with Herzog’s fellow German New Waver, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Effi Briest, and Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven, among others). Then there is Bruno Stroszek, played by the inscrutable Bruno S., primarily known for, well, being the abused, trouble-making, mentally unstable son of a prostitute. Dubbed by Herzog the “unknown soldier of German cinema,” Bruno had worked with the director on The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser three years prior, also in the title role. Lastly, there is Scheitz, played by Clemens Scheitz, another amateur and rather odd fellow with a total of six credits to his name, four of them with Herzog.
Stroszek begins as Bruno is released from prison (the real Bruno was also in frequent trouble with the law). Toting some luggage, his accordion, and a bugle, the music-loving Bruno proclaims he is “entering freedom,” but his delight at this is sadly ironic, for no sooner is he out than he begins to see just how harsh, demanding, and restricting the outside world can be. The disheveled and wild-eyed Bruno is warned to stay away from alcohol (apparently a key factor in his incarceration), so of course the first thing he does is grab a beer at the bar. There he meets up with Eva, a low-class prostitute under the thumb of an abusive pimp. With pimps, a prostitute, and a pub, this film, in the beginning anyway, looks more like a Fassbinder feature than one by Herzog, but it doesn’t take long for that to change.
Simple minded though he may be, Bruno is a stark contrast to this criminal thug. He is compassionate, gentle, and seems to truly care for Eva. The exact extent of his feelings is difficult to discern, however, for Bruno — the actor and the character — is frequently shown to be utterly bewildered by his surroundings, physically and mentally strained to comprehend others and express himself. It might seem at first perhaps cruel for Herzog to have such a clearly uneasy individual in front of the camera, but quite quickly, the touching humanity conveyed by this nonprofessional is extraordinary.
Bruno joins Scheitz back at his apartment. The old man has been looking over Bruno’s belongings while he was away, and he tells Bruno he will soon be leaving for America where he will join his nephew. He’ll be traveling by boat, he says, because planes are “built the wrong way.” Eva repeatedly tries to escape the clutches of her pimp, but he is relentless and belligerent. Finally, after he trashes their apartment, brutally assaults Eva, and humiliates Bruno, the trio decides to leave once and for all (after Eva “works” to get enough money).
Following a brief sightseeing stopover in New York City, the group purchases a car for $495 and they’re on their way to America’s Dairyland. Already Bruno struggles to come to terms with this strange new land: “What kind of a country would confiscate Bruno’s mynah bird?” he wonders aloud. Once in Railroad Flats, Wisconsin (actually Plainfield), Scheitz’s nephew greets the group with a “welcome” sign, colorful streamers, his Indian coworker waves an American flag, and, for some reason, they give the visitors Hawaiian leis. On a tour around town, the nephew also informs them that there have been not four, but possibly five murders in the area; he regularly checks for evidence with his metal detector. Bruno gets a job working with the nephew in a garage while Eva begins waitressing at a truck stop. Bruno dons a cowboy hat, they get a mobile home, and Scheitz studies animal magnetism. Joy and hope surface for the first time in the film, and after the hardships of Berlin, the three can begin anew. “Now we’ve made it,” declares Scheitz.
But such optimism doesn’t last. Before long, the barren wintery landscape reflects the breakdown of Bruno’s American dream. “Everyone can make money in America,” argues Eva, but Bruno soon becomes disenchanted and tension grows between him and Eva. The bills add up, the language barrier makes potential solutions next to impossible, and the bank eventually repossesses their home. Eva tries to earn more money (guess how), but it’s not enough. She leaves with some hillbilly truckers while Scheitz and Bruno embark on a drastically ill-conceived retaliatory endeavor that gets the former arrested and sends the latter on his way alone to the film’s stunning conclusion.
From the uncomfortable early scene with a premature baby to the film’s dancing chicken denouement, Stroszek is marked by one strange moment after another. Never quite disturbing, but frequently unsettling, certain sequences have a naturally occurring oddness. Perhaps because Werner Herzog was a stranger to this part of America (or perhaps simply because he is Werner Herzog), he manages to hone in on some distinctly regional characteristics that, on the surface and seen in their everyday banality, are relatively innocuous. However, when he trains his objective, observational camera on these features, and places them in the context of this unorthodox movie, they resonate with a remarkable weirdness. With corpses of broken down vehicles scattered in fields, dead deer strapped to the back of cars, tags left on furniture and plastic on mattresses, and an impromptu and surprisingly well-attended auction (the sound of an auctioneer’s rapid-paced calling being one of the strangest damned things I’ve ever seen or heard in real life or in the movies), this is the world of Stroszek.
There are neither exotic locales nor individuals of incredible disposition in this film, so in the Werner Herzog canon Stroszek is something of an anomaly. Due to this normality and the lack of fantastic characters or environmental attributes, it basically stands alone in Herzog’s oeuvre. But this is Werner Herzog, and under this facade of ordinariness he reveals the everyday mysteries and peculiarities that make a rather mundane Wisconsin town in the late 1970s as alien as the Peruvian jungle and as contemporarily incongruous as 18th century Bavaria. And our heroes, this motley trio of pleasant outcasts, emerge to be as fascinating and as emotionally engaging as any of the mesmerizing individuals Herzog has filmed.
It seems redundant to say that Werner Herzog’s movies are unlike anyone else’s, and more often than not, each of his own films are markedly unique from what he did prior or following. But for all of the above reasons and more, Stroszek is truly an exceptional work, with one of cinema’s most bizarre, hilarious, and rather unnerving endings, as is suggested by the film’s final lines of dialogue: “We have a 10-80 out here, a truck on fire, we have a man on the lift. We are unable to find the switch to turn the lift off and we can’t stop the dancing chicken. Send an electrician. We’re standing by…”
Love Streams, John Cassavetes’ final film as an actor and penultimate film as director, is also one of his most unusual features. While his distinctive work can oftentimes be divisive, it’s easy to see how this film more than most others could be rather off-putting to those not appreciative of, or even accustomed to, his filmmaking technique.
Cassavetes adapted the film with Ted Allan, based on the latter’s play, and the film’s structure is one of the more vexing of its attributes. Dropped into two parallel lives, with little to no backstory, only gradually are we able to piece together certain details. First, there is Robert Harmon (a worn and weary Cassavetes, his failing health evident). Harmon is a writer, a drunk, and a womanizer, and he is supposedly working on a book about nightlife, though that seems to be a mere pretense for him to frequent clubs and pick up girls. And this he most certainly does. His house is abuzz with a bevy of young women coming and going at random, with no established relationship to Robert. It’s mentioned that his writing focuses on loneliness, and though he is perpetually surrounded by others, it quickly becomes clear that emotionally and spiritually he is indeed a solitary figure.
The other story in the film follows the bitter divorce and ensuing custody battle between Sarah (Gena Rowlands) and Jack Lawson (Seymour Cassel). She is mentally unbalanced, previously institutionalized, and apparently makes a living entertaining sick people, an occupation their young daughter, Debbie, cares little for. Sarah says she and Debbie are well liked because they are cheerful; Debbie says the sick people smell bad. Generally, Jack is the more fit parent, and he has a touching affection for the young girl, but it is Sarah who emerges the more tragic figure. She is a wreck, but she remains optimistic, arguing that love is a stream, it’s continuous, it doesn’t stop, and this keeps her going. When she travels to Europe with an inordinate amount of luggage, the symbolism of the baggage she carries with her is obvious.
It’s not apparent from the start, but Robert and Sarah are brother and sister, and their eventual reunion comes as they are both confronting individual lives in shambles. It’s no surprise that they are related, and when the association is made, the separate chaos begins to make sense. Their eccentricities, though differing, nevertheless mirror each other in terms of slow but steady paths toward self-destruction and self-imposed alienation. He is an irresponsible drunk who acts with heedless abandon, and with her, it’s never certain when and how she will act out; she assures Jack, “I’m almost not crazy now,” but she still fantasizes about killing he and Debbie. They lead unconventional lives, there’s no doubt about it, but the film seems primarily concerned with how well they’re doing it, are they, in fact, doing the best they can. “Actually,” Sarah says to Robert, fully prepared to accept it, “we’re both pretty screwed up.” This is where Cassavetes works better than almost anyone, honing narrowly in on people and their problems.
Save for some extraordinary lighting in the past (Minnie and Moskowitz), Cassavetes usually places little emphasis on technique, and though it contains a brief slow-motion car crash and a rather striking overhead traveling shot — both stylistic touches atypical for the director — Love Streams is a largely unadorned work, with even an occasional camera bump and mismatched cut here and there. It also seems in many ways to be exceptionally overblown, even in terms of Cassavetes’ usual penchant for unrestrained acting. There’s plenty of sincerity to the performances, as one would expect, particularly when he holds a shot and simply lets individuals talk and interact, without too much action to addle them. And there’s plenty of arguing and yelling, adding to that candid Cassavetes trademark. But with fits of hysterical laughter and characters falling over themselves, coupled with the film’s piecemeal narrative explication and the characters’ frequent recklessness, the generally admirable emotional rawness doesn’t always produce the requisite emotional resonance.
The new Criterion Collection release of Love Streams contains the expected bounty of special features (Criterion was, after all, responsible for the invaluable box set of Cassavetes’ greatest films). Along with the new digital restoration and commentary track by writer Michael Ventura, there is a video essay about Rowlands and interviews with executive producer and director of photography Al Ruban, actor Diahnne Abbott, and Cassel, as well as “I’m Almost Not Crazy . . .”—John Cassavetes: The Man and His Work (1984), a sixty-minute documentary on the making of Love Streams. The release also includes a booklet featuring an essay by critic Dennis Lim and a 1984 New York Times piece on the film by Cassavetes.
In Lim’s essay, he contends that, “More than a culmination of Cassavetes’s obsessions, Love Streams … is a palimpsest through which many of his other movies are visible,” and he goes on to cite astute similarities with such movies as Minnie and Moskowitz, Shadows, Faces, A Woman Under the Influence, Opening Night, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and Husbands, in other words, just about every film Cassavetes ever directed. While the comparisons are accurate, and it’s not an unusual tendency to search for allusions to past films in a great director’s final work (we’ll forget Big Trouble for a moment, just like Cassavetes tried to), this reminiscence is partly why Love Streams isn’t always as effective as it perhaps should be or as these other films are. To a large degree, we’ve seen these troubled individuals before, with their personality quirks and erratic behaviors (Robert spontaneously hauling his neglected eight-year-old son off to Vegas, Sarah bringing home a cab full of animals, including miniature horses), but there can be a time when too much is just too much and the whole thing doesn’t really ring true.
Cassavetes always excelled at creating deeply emotional connections to his everyday characters. They are people just like us, with our problems and our concerns, leading lives that are commonly ordinary yet nonetheless fascinating. His narratives, like Love Streams, which Lim states is, “less in a flow than as a series of small jolts, guided by the unruly impulses of characters who lurch and fumble their way from one emotional extreme to another,” are often delightfully madcap. Personal crises, familial drama, relationship trouble: this is Cassavetes’ bread and butter, and his intimate, improvisational form of filmmaking perfectly fits his rambunctious stories. So yes, Love Streams is like these other films in this regard, as Lim demonstrates, but Cassavetes set his own bar quite high, and similar to does not necessarily equal as good as.
To say that Abbas Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us is an unhurried film would be quite the understatement. This deliberately crafted and contemplative work, one of the great Iranian director’s finest films, moves at the pace of life. Not life as in the hustle and bustle or stolid banality of one’s everyday experiences, but life as in the gradual evolution of humankind’s basic existence. Reflecting the lives of those who inhabit the rural Kurdish village that serves as the film’s setting, The Wind Will Carry Us unfolds slowly and episodically, with its drama, or lack thereof, coming and going at a capricious moment’s notice.
Kiarostami begins the film as we follow a car driven by disembodied voices that bicker about directions and banter about the countryside. They drive and drive, along winding roads, up and down the mountains, through farmland peppered with single trees that serve as location markers. We don’t see in the car, but it becomes clear through the dialogue that the further the men go, the further they voyage from urban modernity to a remote, rural, almost alien land. They finally arrive at their destination, an isolated village that seems to be literally carved from one of the mountains; it erupts from the earth like an organically developed outgrowth of the terrain itself. Of these men, only one will emerge as a character. This man, played by Behzad Dorani, appears to be the leader of the group, and he’s the first to make contact with the inhabitants of this village — “You’ve hidden it well,” he says.
This man, referred to as the “engineer” (His profession? An honorific title? A nickname?) is met by a young boy named Farzad. This child will act as the engineer’s guide and his key local associate. It’s good that he has a guide too, for we soon see that this labyrinthine village mirrors the landscape, with passageways and platforms developing into layer upon layer of residence. As if in a structure from a Jacques Tati film or as in the best sequence from Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring, characters appear, disappear, and reappear as they make their way through their surroundings. Rooftops lead to front doors and steps rest at raised gathering places. The engineer asks the boy where his school is. “This way and that,” he says. It’s likely this is where any part of this village could be.
It’s not made clear at the start — to the villagers or the audience — but these men have actually arrived to document a death ritual to be performed once an elderly woman passes away. This lady, Mrs. Malek, the centenarian grandmother of Farzad, is an invalid who has been very sick for some time. It should be any day now that she departs. But it doesn’t happen that fast. In fact, it doesn’t seem like it’s going to happen at all. Perhaps she’s even getting better. In any case, Dorani and his crew must remain on the scene, just in case anything should happen.
Subsequently, there is downtime, a lot of downtime. The crew remains largely unseen and inactive, not that there would be anything for them to do anyway, but Dorani is more lively and curious and refuses to remain idle. During the days that pass, he busies himself by wandering around, by foot or in his car, visiting and chatting with the locals. Archaic though it may be, he is absorbed in, and seemingly enchanted by, this traditional culture. It’s easy to see how. The villagers are welcoming, accommodating, and respectful to the stranger. There is, amongst themselves and with him, a constant exchanging of pleasantries, warm greetings of “How are you?” and salutations of “Good luck.” And wherever he goes, he is offered food and drink. It’s a leisurely, simple life here, a life he admires and desires, even if he seems to feel above it. It’s a place where people sit and gather at undefined communal grounds and where they don’t have bosses or disturbances – this, as opposed to his constantly ringing cell phone and assertive demands.
There’s a lot of subtle humor in the film, and the reoccurring cell phone calls contribute to some of the most amusing sequences. The village gets little reception, so with every call, Dorani is forced to rapidly seek higher ground, which usually involves him rushing to his car and driving up the nearest mountain. This repeated quest is comical and is clearly meant to comment on the incongruity of such technology in the region (the car breaking down at the beginning of the film perhaps served the same purpose).
Aside from being charmed by the residents, especially the studious Farzad, whom he helps cheat on his exams, the engineer appears utterly perplexed by this way of life. As Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa has written, “Behzad is the embodiment of the universal, modern, alienated, anxious, and preoccupied man.” He is shown to be constantly inquisitive, literally so in his bombardment of questions and visually so in his frequently bemused expression of observance. He’s intrigued by their traditions (if Malek eats one of the many bowls of soup provided to her, the respective cook will get their wish granted) and fascinated by their familial development (he’s surprised by a neighbor who is pregnant with her tenth child).
While the rest of his crew grows impatient, getting sick of waiting for the old woman to die, Dorani seems perfectly content to remain. The crew is restless to return to Tehran, some 450 miles away, and they try to push for some action. “I can’t strangle her!” he argues. Similarly, his producer, the source of so many of the phone calls, is upset that nothing is happening. This old woman was supposed to have one foot in the grave. Her continuing to live is not part of their plan. It’s certainly callous, and at one point, the engineer asks if he’s a bad person, but that’s their business — they want results. That’s not how life unfolds though, certainly not this kind of life. There is no plan.
All of this does give the film a measured pace, and at 118 minutes, Kiarostami takes his time. Fortunately, aside from being a director of sublime thematic and emotional resonance, Kiarostami is also a visually inventive filmmaker. He will vary his unorthodox compositions in terms of distance and angle, but in The Wind Will Carry Us, he frequently incorporates a stylistic strategy whereby Dorani is talking with people we don’t see, at least not right away. Their position is either obscured by their surroundings, such as the man digging a ditch, whom we never see since he is below ground and Kiarostami’s camera never is, or where the other characters are speaking off-screen, the dialogue playing out without instantly establishing who is it speaking nor their spatial relationship to Dorani. Forget textbook shot-reverse-shot technique or the employment of clearly defined over-the-shoulder camera positioning; if and when Kiarostami does film an exchange between two characters where he cuts between both parties (and he literally cuts – he edited the film), they are shot singularly, frontally, and squarely in the frame. There are times as well when Kiarostami has some fun with the camera, such as the above mentioned disappearing/reappearing acts as characters stroll through the village’s architectural web, or when he shows Behzad shaving directly into the camera, the lens as his mirror.
The Wind Will Carry Us comes from a poem by Forough Farrokhzad, which Dorani recites, and though it wasn’t the first title chosen for the film, it perfectly suits the depiction of the life and lives of this village. This existence is one of natural motivation, with little to no synthetic influence. The images of a turtle slowly walking along, of the crops swaying in the breeze, and the meandering river all suggest a graceful, unassuming path of life and death, not one that can be adjusted to comply with the superficial needs of a television crew.
REVIEW from SOUND ON SIGHT
Jacques Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort is the Oscar-nominated follow-up to his immensely popular and successful The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), which with all of its dialogue sung was something of a reinvention of the movie musical, an almost experiential musical. Young Girls, on the other hand, is simply a great musical. To be sure, Umbrellas is an excellent film as well (see my take on it here), but while it surely resonates with its tale of love unhappily ever after, and it radiates in attractive Eastmancolor, it’s in some ways hampered by its own novelty. There is of course more to it than merely the fact that everyone sings everything, but to many it’s probably best known as the movie where everyone sings everything. Young Girls is more traditional in that it has dialogue interspersed with the singing and dancing sequences, and the narrative (complex if not terribly original) proceeds in a more straightforwardly absorbing fashion, without necessarily having the music overshadow any customary storytelling. Gloriously composed — visually and aurally — The Young Girls of Rochefort is a lyrically light holiday to this provincial town, with its assortment of pleasant people having their fair share of romantic troubles. Moreover, it’s one of the best musicals the form has ever seen.
As a great musical, it excels in its generic requisites. Michel Legrand’s catchy music is actually better than that in Umbrellas, as are Demy’s songs (understandably so, since in the earlier film the lyrics are basically conversation). Many of these songs act as reoccurring character themes, motifs that summarize and cue associations with their respective dreams, doubts, and feelings. Like Umbrellas, there are times when banal chitchat is rendered musical, and moments when spoken dialogue rhymes, but generally the songs here are clearly distinct segments. The choreography and staging of the dance numbers, both first-rate, are whimsically random yet with obvious structure. They spring from nowhere, and sometimes not everyone shown seems to be on the same page (some townspeople join in while others just mill about as the main players enthusiastically dance around them). There’s an arranged, improvisational quality to the routines; the movements have a vibrancy that nevertheless appears carefully directed. Keeping everything color-coded and connected, cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet works brilliantly with Demy’s pastel designs, with most of the costumes and sets in the hues of an Easter egg.
The whirlwind weekend of the film begins on a Friday morning, with a mosaic roster of interconnected figures, most unknowingly so, all with romance on the mind. There are two freewheeling young men who arrive as part of the fair: Étienne (George Chakiris) and Bill (Grover Dale), sweeping into the modest town like they own the place and mixing and mingling as if they’ve known the residents forever. The other duo is Delphine and Solange Garnier (real-life siblings Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac). They are a “pair of twin born in the sign of Gemini,” the former a piano teacher and composer, the latter a dance teacher, the both of them longing for love, a better career, and a more hip existence in Paris.
Their mother, Yvonne Garnier (Danielle Darrieux), runs a glass-enclosed café centrally located in the middle of town, which is frequented by, among other regulars, Maxence (Jacques Perrin), a budding artist who has his ambitions sidetracked by his naval duty. The wistful Maxence has painted his “feminine ideal,” which is hung up in the gallery owned by Guillaume Lancien (Jacques Riberolles) and which looks strikingly like Delphine, whom he has never met. Guillaume, however, does know Delphine and harbors unrequited feelings for her.
There’s also Simon Dame (Michel Piccoli), who just opened a music store and encourages the career of Solange. Finally, there’s Boubou (Patrick Jeantet), Yvonne’s youngest child, from a different father than the girls. As it turns out, Simon is Boubou’s dad. He was engaged to Yvonne but their marriage was thwarted because, among other reasons (though primarily), she dreaded the thought of being referred to as “Madame Dame” (it is comical, and some of the other characters can’t help but laugh when she tells her story). She and Simon have no idea that the other is in such close proximity, but both separately wish to reunite. Finally, there’s Andy Miller, a friend of Simon’s. When Solange picks up Boubou from school, the boy throws a tantrum and tosses his school bag on the ground, its contents falling out. As she kneels down to pick everything up, there’s another set of knees there to help. Those knees belong to Andy, who is played by Gene Kelly.
The casting of Kelly here is interesting. The film goes to another level when he appears, his iconic role in the musical genre bringing with it all sorts of connotations and allusions to prior masterworks. The music knows this and dramatically swells. Sure, that’s partly because it’s love at first sight for Andy and Solange, but it’s also because it’s Gene Kelly. His mere presence gives the film an amusing, self-conscious sensibility. It’s 45 minutes in before he appears, and another 30 minutes or so after that before he’s seen again, but his imprint on the film is unforgettable, for reasons not the least of which have to do with his casting as a fine example of the French idolatry for classic Hollywood personalities. (He doesn’t have the name or face recognition of Kelly, but including Chakiris, who starred in West Side Story earlier in the decade, was similarly a casting coup for Demy, the musical fan that he was.) Hollywood aside, in the best Nouvelle Vague tradition there are other, more local cinematic references throughout, from the mention of Truffaut’s Jules and Jim to characters referring to Legrand himself.
Everyone is in place by this point, and unbeknownst to them all, the love they desire is just around the corner. Rochefort is a small town — how long can they continue to miss these corners? A song declares, “Chance often does things right, but it got its wires crossed,” and that’s what moves much of the drama in The Young Girls of Rochefort: barely missed connections, past associations, lost and unfound loves. There’s a lot going on, yet Demy insisted that the plot meant little to him. More important was “a general feeling, a moment in life, just moments of existence.” While some of these moments are temporarily tragic, in that they revolve around individuals deeply pining for love and living with regret, more often than not, they are simply delightful. The characters are smiling, dancing, and carefree. How carefree? When it’s revealed that a recent dinner guest is actually an ax murderer, Yvonne thinks back to his uncooperative behavior at that dinner and humorously decries, “And that fuss about cutting the cake!”
Life and death, love and solitude: it’s all part of the game, and Demy and his characters take it in stride. The always insightful Jonathan Rosenbaum compares the film’s “poetic vision and its artisanal techniques” to Jacques Tati’s Playtime, with a similar “polyphonic plot of crisscrossing missed connections, ironically built in relation to a closely intertwined community.” It’s a spot-on association, and the Tati connection carries even further in the way his films and this Demy picture in particular treat life’s follies and foibles with a subjective bemusement. There’s also a resigned recognition of the tragically uncontrollable. So it’s fitting then, too, that Rosenbaum also quotes Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story, specifically when Kyoko ponders, “Life is disappointing, isn’t it?” Rosenbaum does not, however, include Noriko’s response, where she answers smiling, “Yes, it is.” In other words, C’est la vie.
The new Criterion Collection release of The Young Girls of Rochefort is but one part of their fabulous ‘The Essential Jacques Demy’ set. Boasting new restorations of six of Demy’s best films and a wealth of bonus features, this is one exceptional compilation. The disc for Young Girls is representative of what’s included with each title. There’s a discussion between Demy biographer Jean-Pierre Berthomé and costume designer Jacqueline Moreau, and a short segment from a 1966 series about the film. But the real highlights are a 1966 interview featuring Demy and Legrand, and Agnès Varda’s 1993 documentary The Young Girls Turn 25.
The Demy/Legrand inclusion gives a fascinating and charismatic glimpse at the duo’s creative process, where we see just how interconnected they are, how indispensable their respective contributions are to the picture as a whole. It’s amusing to see the two of them collaborate and banter with the interviewer. But Varda, Demy’s widow and an excellent filmmaker in her own right, is responsible for what is the most emotionally affecting of the bonus features. It’s genuinely touching to see the footage she shot of Demy during the film’s production, and to hear her loving comments about her gifted husband. Mostly though, her documentary revolves around a visit to Rochefort as the town and seemingly all of its residents prepare to celebrate The Young Girls of Rochefort’s 25th anniversary. “We were all sort of slumbering,” says one gentleman. “The film people came and we awakened … and we all began to sing.” Everyone in the documentary, from Deneuve to some of the extras who had only the smallest of roles, speak with warm fondness for the film (basically the town’s primary claim to fame) and Demy as a man and filmmaker. As part of the celebration, public performances feature costumes and songs from the film, the town is festooned in the film’s distinctive colors, there are municipal dedications in the names of those associated with the film, and schoolchildren draw pictures of the “Young Girls”. One youth interviewed even shows that wherever she goes, she carries with her a copy of The Young Girls of Rochefort on videocassette.
Sure it’s the setting, but is there really any call for a whole town to elaborately commemorate a film like this? Is it a film that is so good it needs to be with someone at all times? Is it that enjoyable, that charming, that memorable? To again quote Noriko, “Yes, it is.”
REVIEW from SOUND ON SIGHT
Even if we weren’t told at the start that Picnic at Hanging Rock was about a group of girls who disappeared Saturday, Feb. 14, 1900 and were never seen again, it would become apparent almost immediately that this 1975 film was not going to end happily, or progress normally. Director Peter Weir, working off a script by Cliff Green (adapted from Joan Lindsay’s novel), presents Appleyard College in Victoria State, Australia, and the nearby wildness, as otherworldly locales with an air of haunting splendor. The first lines of the film, from Miranda (Anne Lambert), not quite the lead, but an individual of focus more than the others, hint at what’s to unfold: “What we see and what we seem are but a dream, a dream within a dream.” And henceforth this surreal, stunningly photographed picture proceeds as if indeed in a perpetual dream-state plagued by melancholic doom.
By way of a whimsical and deliberately hallucinatory technique, the opening sequences at the college introduce the primary characters – the girls as well as, most importantly, Mrs. Appleyard (Rachel Roberts) and Miss McCraw (Vivean Gray). Weir and cinematographer Russell Boyd utilize not only diffused illumination to create an impression of enigmatic sensuality and mystery, but also slow motion and dissolves, resulting in a spellbinding visual peculiarity. “Poetic” would also describe Picnic at Hanging Rock, particularly early on and later during the more fantastic moments. But it’s perhaps music that has the most in common with the film, notably in terms of its atmosphere, the way it absorbs one into its creation. Aided by the oftentimes blank and trancelike intensity of the girls, and the evocative score by composer Bruce Smeaton and pan flute musician Gheorghe Zamfir, this is a movie that truly gets under one’s skin.
Lest it is shrouded by the ambiance, there is a story here. The girls travel to the “geological miracle” that is Hanging Rock, a massive volcanic formation that looms large over the neighboring woods. Of the students, only Sara (Margaret Nelson), a troubled girl who bears a perhaps more than friendly affection for Miranda, is left behind. Initially, the trip is pure bliss, with the girls delighting in being able to remove their gloves — once they’re appropriately distanced from town that is. Clothing proves to be a recurring, if puzzling, feature of Picnic at Hanging Rock. The incongruity of the girls’ formal wear in the wild is striking, out of place and seemingly out of time, even despite the period setting; and later, bits of clothing, either missing or remaining from the girls who vanish, cause perplexed distress.
Also picnicking in the forest is the Fitzhubert family. Son Michael (Dominic Guard) and valet Albert (John Jarratt) see Miranda, Irma (Karen Robson), Edith (Christine Schuler), and Marion (Jane Vallis) wander away from the group and explore the rocks. The girls appear as majestic visions to the two boys, and around this time, the film takes on a more pronounced supernatural tenor as all wristwatches are discovered to have suddenly stopped at exactly noon. It’s “something magnetic,” contends Miss McCraw, but as the four girls go deeper into the labyrinthine rocks, something further inexplicable transpires. Edith is ill and repeatedly decries the area being “nasty.” She stays back, but the other three venture further into a narrow crevasse, into, perhaps, another dimension. They vanish and Edith screams and runs away. And so it begins.
The boys are questioned, as is Edith, who when fleeing down the hill saw a red cloud overhead as she passed Miss McCraw running up the hill. Edith reveals that Miss McCraw, who has also now disappeared, was no longer wearing her dress. Michael is guilt-ridden for not having somehow watched over the girls, and after days of searching bear no results, he and Albert begin their own investigation. Michael tries to enter into the fracture where the girls disappeared, but something prevents him from moving forward. He succumbs to the pressure and the exertion and is found by Albert, who discovers that the disturbed Michael is clutching a piece of one of the girls’ dresses. As Albert goes back amongst the rocks, he amazingly finds Irma, traumatized but still alive. She has scratches to her hands and fingers, as if she clawed at something, and a bruise on her head, as if she was struck, but the rest of her body is unmarked. She has no shoes, socks, or corset, but rape is ruled out. She has no memory of what happened.
Nothing about this adds up, nothing ever will, and that’s the point. Picnic at Hanging Rock exists simply and effectively as a work meant to confound, to challenge, to perhaps even frustrate in its ambiguities and unsolved mysteries. When Michael is stricken by whatever it is that befalls him, over his anguished body Weir superimposes earlier scenes accompanied by snippets of dialogue. This sequence coalesces times when what characters said and did seem to clearly imply the mystery to come. We’ve seen these instances since the beginning of the film. Before leaving the school, Miranda knowingly says she won’t be around much longer. There’s talk of the rock waiting a million years, just for the girls. “We shall only be gone a little while,” cryptically says one student as she leaves. “A surprising number of human beings are without purpose, though it is probable that they are performing some function unknown to themselves,” says another. Each time one of these phrases is uttered (“Everything begins and ends at the exactly right time and place” is another provocative line) the sense of impending doom is called to the fore. The same goes for the expressions of somber reverie, the tantalizing wave from Miranda as she and the other three walk off, the exchanging of glances that suggest something between suspicion and acknowledgement. From the start, these signifiers of ambiguity are relentless. And when Weir includes the montage of these moments, with so many seen all at once, overlapping, we expect them to present or at least hint at a solution of sorts. This is the moment in a mystery where the details of previous incidents are seen together and give rise to apparent significance, meanings that weren’t necessarily clear when they first occurred. This is how the viewer puts together the pieces and solves the puzzle. But nothing of the sort happens with Picnic at Hanging Rock. We’re given the baffling ingredients, but a recipe for a simple explanation doesn’t exist.
There are also times when symbolic imagery is explicit and seems to indicate an overt connotation. From high above, Edith looks down at the other picnickers and comments, “Except for those people down there, we might be the only living creatures in the whole world.” Cut to a high angle shot of the group of girls strewn against the rocks, laying every which direction. Cut to ants likewise mingling randomly amongst grass and discarded food. The associative montage suggests a related aimless existence, but where that goes and just how it plays into the totality of the film remains inconclusive.
As Vincent Canby notes in his review of the film, the open ending is bound to aggravate a certain portion of the audience (if the preceding events hadn’t already). “I can’t tell you how the story is resolved,” he states, “though some people will feel cheated.” So where does that leave a film like Picnic at Hanging Rock? Canby suggests it’s a type of horror film. It’s eerie enough, its haunting effect is indeed a lingering one, and with young girls tormented and screaming, it at the very least contains those hallmarks of the horror genre. However, to place this film into such a generic category would be an injustice to a movie that so obviously seeks to be something else all together, which it surely is. One of the great things about this film is Weir’s audacious — and successful — choice to intentionally present a mystery and make no attempt to solve it, to make a movie that resists classification, with a narrative and a style that defies convention and simplistic understanding or description. Its riddles may frustrate, but they’re presented as if an answer were just within reach, a solution so close that one wants to keep coming back to the film to make sure something wasn’t missed, a key wasn’t overlooked. And yet, even if no such solution is to be had, Picnic at Hanging Rock is such an extraordinary achievement that the ultimate uncertainty is worth the road it took to get there.
REVIEW from FILM INTERNATIONAL
Robert Bresson’s is one of the great singular visions of the cinema. Like Stanley Kubrick and Andrei Tarkovsky, Bresson’s output was relatively minimal — 13 features over the course of 40 years — but it is likewise instantly recognizable. Though it’s something of an auteurist cliché to say that one can identify a given director’s work by just a single scene or even a single frame, in this case, the declaration holds true. Bresson’s work is so distinct, so deceptively simple, so regimented in its formal construction, that to see one of his films is to witness an exceptional directorial style, one consistently employed throughout an artist’s body of work. With this consistency comes the subsequent creation of one extraordinary film after another, each similar to the previous, with reoccurring imagery, themes, and performances, but each, at the same time, notably unique. Bresson directed several films that could be considered his greatest, and while Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) puts up the strongest fight, a good case could be made for Pickpocket, from 1959, as the inimitable filmmaker’s finest achievement.
Though there are others in the film, Michel (Martin LaSalle) is the titular thief of concern. Michel is, in James Quandt’s words, a “walking semiotic system of alienation.” LaSalle’s blank slate of a face allows the audience to project any number of emotions and thoughts onto this young man, but such associative engagement is sheer speculation, for rarely are we afforded any overt suggestion of true feeling. His self-imposed isolationism keeps him at a distance from society, for which he seems to care little, and from family and friends. Jeanne (Marika Green), his teenage neighbor who cares for his ailing mother (Michel would rather give his mother a wad of cash than visit with her), and Jacques (Pierre Leymarie), his sole friend, offer a way out from the solitary existence, a path of intimacy and amity, but Michel greets this closeness with trepidation. Though the three do socialize on occasion, Michel’s public presence is awkward to say the least.
Adding to his social discomfort is his disconcerting worldview, his take of what is right or wrong and his questioning of morality and appropriate justice. With Jacques and the police officer who is suspiciously on his trail at all times, Michel daringly lays out his philosophical stance when it comes to the justification of certain crimes if committed by gifted men, men better than others, men above the law, “supermen” operating autonomously from societal structures. Such a duel (dis)regard for certain people and not others is manifest in Michel’s visually evident and even stated appreciation for his chosen craft and those craftsmen who so expertly execute the crime. (Real-life pickpocket Kassagi appears in the film and acted as a technical advisor for the production, lending the criminal methodology shown considerable authenticity.) The ambiguous awe with which Michel sometimes examines the other pickpockets gives credence to some of the psychosexual readings that have been assigned to the film; they’re perhaps not what first comes to mind watching the movie, but once the suggestion has been made, as Quandt does make, it’s hard to shake the theory.
Michel meticulously practices his thieving routine, and once successfully put into action, the anxiety gives way to euphoria; watching Michel enact his felonies is truly a sensual experience. The same goes for when we see Michel and his fellow pickpockets stage elaborately designed joint thefts. The bravura sequence at the train station is a wonderfully shot and arranged display of intricate collaboration. Such careful commitment to a crime is, it must be admitted, rather admirable and impressive. But of course, that doesn’t make it right, and on the flip side of this is the omnipresent potential for apprehension. The police are also competent figures in Pickpocket. There are officers doing their own work, and frequently succeeding. What emerges is a sort of professional tête-à-tête of contrasting and competing occupational proficiency.
Known for his austere and stripped down treatment of imagery, Bresson here reveals a notable stylishness, with a smoothly flowing camera and outstanding montage sequences — Pickpocket is also perhaps less rigorous due to its rapid pace and its condensed runtime (about 75 minutes). While it is a brisk film, Bresson nevertheless allows for certain formal features more synonymous with his cinema: extreme, perfectly composed close-ups of small details and abstract body parts; lingering shots of halls and doorways, transitional places maintained in the frame before or after a character has moved through them; and the integration of a complex soundtrack as a way to establish and enlarge off-screen space. Paul Schrader, in his introduction to the film that accompanies the recently released Criterion Collection Blu-ray, discusses these and other unique Bresson approaches to filmic guidelines. His decisions when it comes to editing tempo, genre convention, shot size, and pacing are most unusual, and yet are highly effective in terms of narrative progression and the general impression of the film. This impression, as Quandt mentions in his commentary, is one marked by the “everyday transfigured by Bresson’s strange attentiveness.”
Schrader, who calls Pickpocket the most influential film on his own career (with allusions most clearly in Taxi Driver and American Gigolo), considers Michel as a soul floating around. Much of this detached sense is a result of Bresson’s use of actors (or, as he would sometime refer to them, “interpreters” or “models”). Like automatons that have not yet developed an emotive aptitude, the performers here and in other Bresson films are in a perpetual state of lethargic restraint and sobriety, only occasionally countered by outbursts of passion. Bresson cast “non-actors who non-act,” as Schrader puts it, but interestingly, given the director’s penchant when it comes to performances, their impact operating in this unorthodox style is always a lasting one.
It is stated at the film’s opening that this will not be a thriller, and with regards to that designation’s standard definition, this is obviously true. But Pickpocket is thrilling. Though we are oftentimes left to infer as much as we are actually shown, this omission of various elements is more captivating than it is distancing. And despite the intentionally stilted performances, we are genuinely concerned about these people and wonder how they will ultimately turn out. When it’s revealed that the morally superior Jacques is not all he seemed to be, the suggestion that perhaps Michel can also change gives the film a previously lacking optimism. His respite from crime may be short-lived, but there is still by film’s end a glimmer of hope. It was a “strange path” Michel traveled, but the destination appears to have been worth the trip. “Appears to” being the key here, for rarely in the film are motivations and outcomes made unequivocal, which was always part of Bresson’s intent. As he puts it, “I’d rather people feel a film before understanding it.”
REVIEW from SOUND ON SIGHT