I very much believe the statement by Faulkner when he says, ‘The past is not dead. It’s not even past,’ ” notes Bertrand Tavernier, the veteran French filmmaker, screenwriter, and producer. The quote indirectly sums up the refreshingly contemporary-feeling approach he took with his new movie, The Princess of Montpensier—a terrific 16th-century romance set amid the aristocracy during the war between the Catholics and Huguenots.
Adapted from Madame de la Fayette’s classic novel, the film concerns a nubile, wealthy heiress (Mélanie Thierry) who loves a rugged hothead from the wrong clan (Gaspard Ulliel), but is forced by her father to marry another prince (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet), leaving her to dwell on the too-modern desire for free will—defiantly bucking against the rigid traditions of her breed. If it weren’t for the royalty and couture, though, the love triangle wouldn’t look vastly different from the dramas of today’s youth culture.
“The real ambition of the film was trying to get the sense of time and place, to get the behavior right, but not film it like it was historical,” Tavernier reveals. “Very often, because a film is in costume, people have a kind of ponderous walk. You have an impression that the scene should be sullen. No! Those people were young. They were running. They were impatient. The camera has to move fast. They were used to wearing the costumes, so for them they are not heavy.”
As the nimble-witted 69-year-old talks about the technical undertakings on display—from the elaborate wartime action sequences and horse stunts to the visual importance of having actors physically exert themselves by filming on craggy terrain—he namedrops American filmmakers who inspired him within the Western genre, including Raoul Walsh and Delmer Daves. A well-known cineaste with an encyclopedic brain for obscure and classic cinema, Tavernier lights up when it’s brought to his attention that another wartime film, Alberto Cavalcanti’s 1942 propaganda oddity Went the Day Well?, opens in repertory release this spring.
“I love that film, and I wrote of how original and brilliant it was,” he says. “The British propaganda films have something unique. They gave great importance to the mistakes made by the British. After all, one of the greatest is The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, where the only person who has political lucidity is a German.”
One of the most macabre entries produced by Ealing Studios at the time, Went the Day Well? tracks the humble innocents of a fictional English village that’s taken under siege by German paratroopers in disguise. Told in flashbacks from a then-uncertain future in which the Nazis were already defeated, the film is a Union Jack–waving tale of empowerment about everymen and -women taking back their town. “It’s so anarchistic,” Tavernier says. “The moments of violence are so unexpected and brutal. A woman shoots a traitor three or four times—not once—and it’s cold-blooded. She really wanted to see him dead. Cavalcanti’s breaking many taboos.”
He continues to gush, excitedly: “Cavalcanti was one of the most intelligent filmmakers of all time. He’s the one who said—and this is advice that I’ve always kept—if you want to tell the story of the post office, tell the story of one letter.”
“I was always saying that on The Princess of Montpensier,” Tavernier admits, citing the intimacy of his narrative as
the key to richly depicting and humanizing the tearing apart of an entire kingdom.
‘The Princess of Montpensier’ opens April 15 (IFC Films), ifcfilms.com; ‘Went the Day Well?’ opens May 20, Film Forum, filmforum.org
Spring Film Picks
Named for a fortified outpost in Afghanistan (wait, don’t skip ahead yet!), Janus Metz’s Cannes Prize–winning doc about thrill-seeking Danish soldiers embedded in Taliban sniping country is an absolute jaw-dropper, eschewing narration and talking heads to let real firefights and downtime behavior (video games and porn) fuel a potent narrative. The platoon’s collective adrenaline rush—already proving controversial in the film’s homeland—might sound like a nonfiction version of The Hurt Locker, but it’s actually closer in its unexpectedly gorgeous, poetically harrowing tone to Apocalypse Now. Lorber Films, in limited release, lorberfilms.com
A bonnet-clad Michelle Williams reteams with Wendy and Lucy auteur Kelly Reichardt—the latter quickly establishing herself as the richest storyteller of dreamy, road-movie Americana—in this sparse but startling, subtly politicized Western set in 1845 Oregon. Grizzled guide Meek (Bruce Greenwood) leads three pioneering families off the wagon trail, debatably on purpose, which leads to thorny drama, moral introspection, and existential dread as the water supply runs dangerously low. Minimalist art film or not, it’s a white-knuckle ride played at a slower speed. Oscilloscope Laboratories, in limited release oscilloscope.net
‘Cruel Cinema: New Tamil Film’
If opulent Bollywood musicals represent India’s upper crust, then these flicks—part of a celebrated new wave of seedier, lower-budget, more challenging fare from the southern Tamil Nadu region—would be the well-read punks shaking them down in back alleys. Before digging into The Hero of Paruthi, Pudhupettai, and Subramaniapuram, strap in for 2009’s I Am God (Naan Kadavul), a beautifully bonkers epic featuring a half-mad, pot-smoking messiah who fights in favor of disabled beggars, dwarfs, cross-dressers, and more supporting players seemingly escaped from Jodorowsky’s oeuvre. Brooklyn Academy of Music, 30 Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn, bam.org
A sociopolitically pointed detective story begins in a mother’s will, as two grown Canadian twins of Middle Eastern descent discover a brother they never had—and that their long-thought-deceased father is very much alive. Denis Villeneuve’s powerful adaptation of Lebanese-born Wajdi Mouawad’s play (recently nominated for the Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar) unfolds in parallel time periods, tracking both the children’s mission to reconcile familial truths in their ancestral land and a trauma of yesteryear that was understandably kept secret. Sony Pictures Classics, in limited release, sonyclassics.com
Anyone familiar with the hyper-prolific output of Japanese cult auteur Takashi Miike (from Audition to Zebraman) might be most shocked by his latest, not for trying to out-gonzo his notorious piano-wire amputations and women giving birth to grown men, but for being his most mature, classical film. A band of unemployed samurai vow to save the masses from a ruthless lord during the Feudal era, an impressively staged actioner with top-notch performances and, OK, some satire and sneaky subversions of the road Kurosawa paved. Magnolia, in limited release, 13assassins.com
April 29–May 5
Better known as an experimental novelist, Wurlitzer has also penned tonally cryptic, wonderfully oddball screenplays for talented filmmakers like Monte Hellman (the seminal road trip Two-Lane Blacktop), Alex Cox (the anachronistic coup satire Walker), Sam Peckinpah (the revisionist Western Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid), and Jim McBride (the post-apocalyptic teen romance Glen and Randa). Wurlitzer himself will appear in person for Anthology’s “Drop Edges of Yonder” series, alongside iconoclast guests Will Oldham and Robert Downey Sr. Anthology Film Archives, 32 Second Avenue, anthologyfilmarchives.org
Who is this “Relentless Renegade,” as the title of the Film Society’s retrospective dubs the now-octogenarian producer and director? Beyond a through line of social and political commentary, how does one define the essential career of a man who left television to make light comedies (40 Pounds of Trouble, The Thrill of It All), Steve McQueen vehicles (The Cincinnati Kid, The Thomas Crown Affair), adapted musicals (Fiddler on the Roof, Jesus Christ Superstar), and an increasingly diverse crop of cinematic staples (Rollerball, Moonstruck)? The Film Society of Lincoln Center, West 65th Street and Broadway, filmlinc.com
The Tree of Life
Beyond a trailer filled with masterfully impressionistic images of landscapes, shadows, and stars Brad Pitt and Sean Penn (respectively playing a father in the 1950s Midwest and his grown son in the present day), very little has been divulged about the latest from reclusive auteur Terrence Malick (Badlands, Days of Heaven, The New World). Among die-hard cinephiles, it’s arguably the season’s most anticipated event, a sure-to-be-debated tale of a “lost soul in the modern world” that reportedly features visual effects of a prehistoric Earth. Fox Searchlight, in limited release, foxsearchlight.com/thetreeoflife