Category: Comedies

LIFF 28 #8: The Trouble With Money (Komedie om Geld, Netherlands 1936)

The 'Master of Ceremonies' who directs the narrative (Source: Deutsche Kinemathek/Foto Merkelbach)

The ‘Master of Ceremonies’ who directs the narrative (Source: Deutsche Kinemathek/Foto Merkelbach)

This was my big disappointment at the festival. It wasn’t that the film wasn’t great but that a beautiful 35mm film print turned up from the Dutch Film Museum sans English subtitles. The Hyde Park staff didn’t have time to check the print before the screening so all they could do after the first few minutes was to apologise and carry on for those brave souls (like me) who wanted at least to watch the film. This is one of those things that can happen at festivals with so many films to project from different formats and a constant stream of prints coming in and going out. I don’t blame the cinema. Fortunately, when I got home after the screening I was able to find almost the entire plot spelled out in detail in the ‘Low Countries’ book in the Wallflower Press 24 Frames series (2004).

The film was included in a festival strand dedicated to the ‘European origins’ of ‘Hollywood Greats’ – a slightly spurious title from my point of view since some the directors in question made European films before and after Hollywood exile that were as good as their American films. This was certainly true of Max Ophüls who was born into a Jewish family in Saarbrücken close to the German border with France. He was very successful as a young theatre director in Vienna and then moved into German-speaking cinema in 1929. His early films included the classic Viennese melodrama Liebelei (1933) after which he fled from the Nazis initially to Paris and most of his films up to 1940 were made in France apart from one in Italy and this film in the Netherlands. After four films in Hollywood (three of which were certainly very good) he returned to make four masterpieces in France before an early death aged 54.

Ophüls was most associated with romance melodramas but this film is primarily a form of social satire about the damage money can do to both a society and individuals/families. The protagonist is a relatively lowly bank clerk/messenger who one day loses a large sum of his employers’ money in transit – partly because he stops to talk to his brother-in-law (the process by which the money is lost is revealed at the end of the story). The clerk and his daughter are hounded out of their home and disgraced but then miraculously re-instated in a scam that sees the clerk installed as the magnate of a house-building company. At first he revels in his new wealth (and the daughter finds romance) but gradually he begins to suffer remorse and then nightmares. These finally drive him to confess his part in the scam and he is imprisoned – only to be released when the original money he lost is re-discovered.

One of the elaborate studio sets. (Source: Deutsche Kinemathek/Foto Merkelbach)

One of the elaborate studio sets. (Source: Deutsche Kinemathek/Foto Merkelbach)

Komedie om Geld offers almost a primer on the film styles of the early 1930s. Reported to be the most expensive Dutch film of its period (though costing less than German features), it wasn’t appreciated by the local audience (possibly too ‘German’ in its satirical gaze?). Given some leeway, Ophüls seems to have spent the money on elaborate studio sets and camerawork courtesy of Eugen Schüfftan, already a veteran of German Expressionism who would go on to work with Marcel Carne and others in France after his stints with Ophüls. Three different visual styles/elements combine in the satire. The ‘domestic scenes’ feature the kind of realism that would become better known in Renoir’s films of the period (though Schüfftan had worked on People on Sunday the 1930 film which showed the lives of ordinary Berliners). Ophüls’ depiction of the business world used the studio sets with deep focus – at least one shot reminded me of Citizen Kane. I confess that I did find it difficult to concentrate. I find an unfamiliar language is often as sleep-inducing as silence if there are no subtitles/intertitles. Therefore I didn’t really notice the length of shots or the use of tracking shots which would later became an Ophüls trademark. I did note however that the film displays many of the tropes of German expressionist cinema and especially in the nightmare sequence. In the 24 Frames book there is an interview with the Belgian filmmaker Harry Kümel who argues that the giant Ufa studio invested heavily in Dutch cinema. I’m not sure whether or not Komedie om Geld benefited from this. But what was clear to me was the use of the ‘MC’ (see the image at the head of the post) who introduces the different elements of the story and who presumably comments on the characters. A similar figure will appear in La ronde (France 1950) and Lola Montès (France 1955).

I’d like to see this again with English subs. There are various websites offering on-line viewing. I’m not sure of the legitimacy of these. There is also a Dutch DVD which is listed as having English subs so I may pursue that.

LIFF 28 #7: Ferpect Crime (El crimen perfecto, Spain-Italy 2004)

Rafael (Guillermo Toledo) with the ghost of his rival salesman who is giving him advice.

Rafael (Guillermo Toledo) with the ghost of his rival salesman who is giving him advice.

One of many retrospectives at LFF 28 featured the work of Álex de la Inglesia in the Fanomenon strand – the wide-ranging genre/’cult’ section of the festival. Ferpect Crime is one of de la Inglesia’s most commercial films with nearly 2 million admissions across Europe – but not in the UK. Although UK distribution was available for some of the director’s early art films such as Acción mutante (1993) the later films have generally not been picked up and especially not a black comedy like Ferpect Crime. (The more recent Balada triste de trompeta (The Last Circus, Spain/France 2010) was reviewed on this blog when it appeared at the Viva Festival at Cornerhouse in Manchester.) ‘Popular comedies’ from other European countries are supposedly the most difficult sell in the UK and distributors simply won’t go there – unless it is Almodóvar. This means that often the biggest hits in Germany, Italy, Spain and even France simply aren’t seen in the UK. It seems that a DVD from a relatively obscure UK company, TLA Releasing (the UK arm of an American company specialising in LGBT and global horror) is available and LFF used this for projection. It didn’t look at all bad.

Ferpect Crime is not that dissimilar to some of Almodóvar’s films from the 1980s, but arguably less complex/surprising. However, it’s very difficult to define precisely why one is ‘art’ and the other is ‘popular’. I should also say that while Almodóvar has depicted all forms of sexuality, often outrageously, he’s never in my view been ‘sexist’. De la Inglesia, based just on the two films I’ve seen, does seem to stray a bit closer to the edge, even if the representations are exaggerated in order to drive a form of social critique.

The plot outline sees Rafael as a super-successful salesman in a Madrid department store. He employs mainly beautiful women as sales assistants on his territory (women’s fashions). They all appear to love him and he spends his nights seducing them one by one in the store after it closes, bribing the security guard. The store is his life  – until everything goes wrong and he accidentally kills his rival who runs the men’s department. Miraculously his problems are solved by the one woman who he has never noticed – the plain woman who desires him and who now has power over him. How is he going to get out of this mess?

I confess that I enjoyed the film and certainly laughed out loud at several of the scenes. I suspect as with many Spanish films, that I might have missed some cultural references and I did wince at some of the sexist moments. But I took the film overall to be a comedy about gender roles and a critique about consumerism and reality TV. I’ll file it next to several other popular Spanish films that have failed to get into UK cinemas but which have generally been very entertaining.

LIFF 28 #4: The Executioner (El Verdugo, Spain 1963)

José Luis (Nino Manfredi, on the right in the foreground) tries to block out the noise of the jets when he and his partner collect a coffin from a flight from the US.

José Luis (Nino Manfredi, on the right in the foreground) tries to block out the noise of the jets when he and his partner collect a coffin from a flight from the US.

Sometimes considered the pinnacle of Luis García Berlanga’s work, The Executioner is a black comedy, a ‘farce’ and now an intriguing document  recording aspects of Franco’s Spain in the early 1960s – a period when Spain was beginning to slowly emerge from isolation and grapple with the modernising world of the rest of Western Europe as well as North America.

José Luis (Nino Manfredi) is an undertaker who wants to go to Germany to become a mechanic. One day his job takes him to a prison to pick up the body of an executed prisoner and he reluctantly finds himself having to visit the home (dingy rented rooms) of an executioner, on the verge of retirement, and his daughter the voluptuous Carmen. She, like José Luis, has found it difficult to keep a relationship going because of her father’s profession. But true love (and sexual desire) leads to the inevitable pregnancy and the couple must marry. Meanwhile, the executioner has the chance to rent a new apartment because of his official status. But he is due to retire – and will therefore lose the apartment. José Luis, in time-honoured fashion must apply for the job in order to ‘keep it in the family’ – and to keep the new roof over the heads of his wife, child and father-in-law. He prays he will never be needed to ‘perform’ – but the first job arrives and it is in La Palma, Mallorca.

As we noted with earlier films by Luis García Berlanga and Juan Antonio Bardem, Italian neo-realism was an important influence on oppositional Spanish filmmaking in the Franco era. This film is less neo-realist as such and more related to Italian comedies. It features both one of the best-known Italian actors of the commedia all’italiana in the form of Nino Manfredi and one of the great Italian cinematographers, Tonino Delli Colli, famous for his work with Leone, Polanski, Fellini, Louis Malle etc. Perhaps not surprisingly, The Executioner was shown at the Venice Film Festival in 1963 and won the FIPRESCI Prize. The Spanish government was trying to deflect attention from a death sentence pronounced on a communist leader in Spain and they faced the quandary that Berlanga both attracted much-needed artistic prestige to Spanish Cinema, but also embarrassed a government planning a political execution.

José Luis with his pregnant wife Carmen and his father-in-law tries to secure a new apartment.

José Luis with his pregnant wife Carmen and his father-in-law tries to secure a new apartment.

Aspects of The Executioner work as farce and that made me think of the later political farces of Dario Fo but it was another Italian connection that struck me quite vigorously. The central plot device whereby José Luis is forced to go after the executioner’s job to get the new apartment sets up a series of interactions with the public servants of Franco’s state. They all deal with the quandary that faces José Luis in an almost perfunctory way. They know he doesn’t want to do the job, but they’ll happily support his application so as to process their own paperwork. This exposure of rigid bureaucracy is similar to the even more fiendish bureaucratic contradictions found in Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Cuban satire Death of a Bureaucrat (1966) in which the problem is not one of finding an executioner but of getting permission to open a coffin because a man has been buried with his worker’s card and without the card his widow can’t claim a pension. Alea had trained in Rome in the 1950s. He’d also probably seen Berlanga’s film at a festival. Another later Italian connection is the Naples episode of De Sica’s Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (1963) in which Sophia Loren is a housewife who must be constantly producing children or the city will take away her family apartment. The plight of workers and their families is shared across Italy, Spain and Cuba despite their different political systems. What makes the Spanish case stand out is the much darker undertones that Berlanga suddenly brings to the fore in the closing sequence. The ‘comedy’ of José Luis being gradually persuaded to carry out his executioner duties for the first time is suddenly made shocking by the switch to a long shot of a cavernous large hall with bare white walls at the far end of which is a small black door (see image below). On the other side is the place of execution and José Luis is dragged across the hall and through the door, fortified by coffee and brandy and held by guards, judges and the priest – the symbols of the Francoist regime – kicking and screaming. The condemned man has already been taken through, relatively quietly. As one reviewer put it, Berlanga is able to show that the execution process affects the innocent working man more than the resigned condemned man.

The executioner in the second group is propelled towards the door, following the condemned man.

The executioner in the second group is propelled towards the door, following the condemned man.

When I started this post I was a little sceptical about the high status of the film but as I’ve had to think about specific scenes and how they fit together I’m beginning to appreciate how it all fits together. There are no superfluous scenes and Berlanga fits a great deal into the roughly 90 minutes running time. The wedding of José Luis and Carmen is, like that in That Happy Couple, a somewhat farcical affair. They are ushered in to follow a high society wedding and quickly married while all the trappings of the high-class wedding are being cleared away, even the candles are being snuffed out so that they are virtually in the dark. In nearly every incident the working class couple are being subjected to forms of humiliation or mockery/disdain/selfishness. But through it all they grin and bear it.

José Luis and Carmen are married in the near dark.

José Luis and Carmen are married in the near dark.

The closing scenes in Mallorca reveal a Spain beginning to ‘open up’ to the outside world with some kind of international event attracting the paparazzi, English tourists in the resorts and the ‘jet set’ in yachts in the harbour. Franco’s regime would carry on for another dozen years until his death and the eventual restoration of parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy. Censorship in the Spanish film industry would remain until the late 1970s but you feel that Berlanga (and Bardem) had managed somehow to show both Spanish audiences and the internal film audience that censorship could be overcome with creativity. Berlanga’s co-writers on this film were Rafael Azcona and Ennio Flaiano. The other two lead actors are Emma Penella as Carmen and José Isbert as her father.

There are numerous offers to watch The Executioner free online. I’ve no idea if any of them are legit. Here’s a good quality 1963 trailer with French subtitles:

LIFF 28 #3: That Happy Couple (Esa pareja feliz, Spain 1951)

esa-pareja-feliz

The first major collaboration between Juan Antonio Bardem and Luis García Berlanga was this unusual social comedy, made in 1951 but not released until 1953 after the success of the same pairing’s Bienvenido Mister Marshall. The script by Bardem focuses on a young working-class couple, Juan (Fernando Fernán Gómez) and Carmen (Elvira Quintillá). He’s an odd-job man in a film studio and she’s a seamstress and they live in rented rooms. Bardem applies a fractured narrative structure to the story which is at first a little confusing. Eventually, we see how they met and got married and then how Juan’s various schemes to get rich run up against Carmen’s dreaming at the pictures and her love of the lottery and competitions. The scenes in the cinema make direct references to censorship when a woman in the audience cries out “they’ve cut the kiss again”.

Juan works for a ramshackle film production company and the ‘exposure’ of filmmaking techniques in the studio is matched by Juan’s explanations of how films work during the cinema screening with Carmen and other sequences when Juan visits a stage show and tries to engage in conversations with an actor and a crew member operating sets on stage. As well as this kind of ‘deconstruction’, the script satirises Carmen’s small stakes gambling and Juan’s correspondence course which promises ‘Happiness through electronics!’. All of this is light-hearted fun which gently punctures the inflated sense of a glowing future promised by the fascist regime. But the last third of the film ups the stakes when Carmen wins the big prize offered by Florit soap. She and Juan become ‘The Happy Couple’ who are given a chauffeur-driven day touring the top shops and hot-spots of Madrid. The sequence corresponds to some extent to those Hollywood comedies in which the ‘hick from the sticks’ comes to the city and becomes the butt of jokes about etiquette and social conventions. Juan and Carmen aren’t ‘rubes’, but they aren’t familiar with fancy dining and nightclub trickery. Laden down with gifts they finally rebel and give away everything to the vagrants sleeping on park benches. Berlanga’s comedic treatment is much broader in its attacks on the myths of prosperity under Franco than Bardem’s approach in Death of a Cyclist.

Some classic film noir lighting effects in this scene between Juan and Carmen remind us that Bardem and Berlanga were influenced by Italian neo-realism and the prevailing lighting styles for drama seen in most film territories in the late 1940s.

Some classic film noir lighting effects in this scene between Juan and Carmen remind us that Bardem and Berlanga were influenced by Italian neo-realism and the prevailing lighting styles for drama seen in most film territories in the late 1940s.

Gómez, the actor playing Juan (often the name of the male protagonist in Bardem’s scripts) was a very well-known actor in Spain and he also appears as the bee-keeper in Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), one of the later allegorical films taking aim at the final days of Franco’s regime. As an established actor in 1951 he was one of the supporters of Bardem and Berlanga’s attempts to inject some realism and some criticism into the films. In one sense, Berlanga’s comedy approach with its ‘softening’ of the pain of low wages and unemployment fitted in with what has been termed a ‘gentle and agreeable version’ of realism which became popular in the early 1950s. But this was a form of realism which directly supported the Catholic Church and was largely devoid of political comment. That Happy Couple went much too far in depicting social reality as the basis for comedy and this was why the censors made it more difficult for the film to gain wide distribution. Making sense of this now in the UK is difficult because we don’t have much of a chance of seeing the ‘acceptable’ face of Spanish Cinema in the early 1950s (though the spoof of the historical drama production on which Juan is assigned to catch the Queen who leaps to her death from a balcony is at least one indication). Perhaps it is just as well!