Don’t Watch That, Watch This: Attack of Summer Movie Counterprogramming
Is Ingmar Bergman out of fashion at the moment? It’s hard to say exactly; certainly, emotionally scorching neo-Bergmanesque cinema is virtually nonexistent today, aside from the largely masturbatory efforts of Lars von Trier. But the new Criterion Blu-ray of Cries and Whispers (1972) — a necessary HD thing, given the film’s unarguable reputation as one of the most appallingly beautiful color films ever photographed — makes it all seem new again. To be honest, this has never been my Bergman go-to, after I saw it as an undergrad in an all-Bergman-every-Monday-morning class, amid fourteen other films, from Summer Interlude (1951) to From the Life of the Marionettes (1980). After you carved through Wild Strawberries, Winter Light, Through a Glass Darkly, The Silence, and Persona, in a semester that tempted everyone’s latent suicidal impulses, Cries and Whispers just seemed like a brash, Eastmancolor retread of established tropes, with a little labia-cutting thrown in for shock value.
But I was wrong, and the blazing new 2K restoration — versus the battered 16mm print I saw in college — is a large reason why I now know it. Seen in this impeccable, prismatic form, it is clearly one of those totemic films that come at you with the conviction of a holy vision — except, of course, the experience is not sacred at all, but psychosexual. All it is: Three sisters (Liv Ullmann, Ingrid Thulin, Harriet Andersson), one case of cancer, two sets of tortured sexual pathology, one grieving servant, sequestered in an estate house sometime in the late 1800s.
Of course, that thumbnail is a pathetic evocation; the psychodramas on top of and below the primary-colors-in-Vermeer’s-nightmares surface have their own Bergmanic inevitability and naked torque. So much has been written about the film already, especially in its day (when everyone had to see it, and weigh in on its magnificence, including the Academy, and every critics group worth anything), but little of it nails its impact, which is holistic and derives from a boiling mix of saturated color, scalding intimacy, compositional ideas that effortlessly evoke both medieval and Freudian iconography, immersive performances (Thulin in particular was never as mesmerizing), and a blood-pumping state of intense psychological and familial crisis.
The disc’s additionals include Criterion’s usual gift basket of commentaries, docs, and interviews (including a new one with Andersson), and the mysteries of the film totally make every scrap compelling. All in all, you cannot mistake this for anything but a chef-d’oeuvre, unless perhaps you’re nineteen, hungover, and it’s Monday morning all over again.
I’d never seen Marcel L’Herbier’s modern-monster epic L’Argent (1928) before, because it hasn’t been shown in the U.S., it seems, since 1929, not even once on television, and has never been available on video. But it’s on YouTube, in four parts and with a stretched aspect ratio, and it’s also a masterpiece, one that has been all but written out of film history everywhere but France. (That word, “masterpiece” — when’s the last time you used it seriously? What new film justifies it? Are we no longer comfortable thinking in terms like that anymore?) Based on Zola’s book but thoroughly modern (and prophetic of the impending Black Tuesday, coming less than a year after its premiere), the film catapults through a high-finance melodrama centering on Saccard (Pierre Alcover), a corpulent, unscrupulous but never unsympathetic Parisian banker struggling to solidify his empire.
The sophisticated machinations rope in a half-dozen other characters (including key roles played by Antonin Artaud, Brigitte Helm, and Jules Berry), crushed romance and betrayal and goldbricking on a grand scale, all of it making perfect market sense and all of it speeding inexorably toward the cliff-edge of hubris. But L’Argent is only nominally its story — in the silent era, Abel Gance was L’Herbier’s only rival as France’s experimental-expressionist Prometheus, and in this film every shot is a shock to the system. All told, L’Argent is a siege of style: gargantuan stylized sets (often tiled as vast chessboards and loomed over by giant maps), on-location shooting at the Parisian Bourse, relentlessly restless camera runs and pivots and swoops, kaleidoscopic layered compositions that suggest a new world distorted into elephantiasic overgrowth by egos and ambitions, and so on. The most expensive film made in France by this time (more, incredibly, than Gance’s Napoleon, from the year before) and an obvious influence on Orson Welles, L’Argent teems with life and flooding perspectival action in ways that are very un-silent — it’s a film that’s bursting its borders. Any way you can see it, see it.
Just as much a salmagundi of tropes and visual flourishes, Takashi Miike’s The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001) is finally coming to Blu-ray from Arrow Films, and if you need to see just one of Miike’s thousand films this summer, this corpse-littered musical farce should be it. Inexplicably, the remote country inn run by the optimistic multigenerational clan (from a ready-for-anything great-granddad to the seven-year-old narrator) only attracts suicides and fatal accidents, leaving the parental-child conflicts to well up in cheesy ballads and hilarious uncoordinated dance routines as the family buries and reburies the bodies. For mid-career Miike it’s a terribly sweet movie, the outrageous sumo-pedophile joke notwithstanding. Anything goes — shot like an Eighties music video, the movie regularly spasms into arch genre modes (horror, romantic kitsch, Svankmajer-ish clay animation, TV variety show, etc.) to fit its characters’ perspectives (or, sometimes, for no reason at all), and it’s as laugh-out-loud funny as any Miike film has ever been. The disc is loaded with fanboy supplements, including an amused and shrugging full-length commentary by Miike himself.
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