Category: Literary adaptations

Satantango (Sátántangó, Hungary, Germany, Switzerland, 1994).

In the beginning ...

In the beginning . . .

Fans of long slow movies can enjoy what is probably their ultimate cinematic treat with this film. It is screening at the Hyde Park Picture House on the 21st of September courtesy of Scalarama, which runs across the UK through September. As an added treat for real purists the screening will be using 35mm prints. Presumably these will be the same ones screened at the Leeds International Film Festival a few years ago. On that occasion the exhausted but completely satiated audience emerged into the grey light of evening. This time it will likely be twilight as the event starts at 11 a.m. It then runs for over seven hours, 435 minutes of films plus two intermissions.

The film is structured in two parts, the first being the longest: however, these break down into 12 chapters, which are the more important organising principle. The ‘tango’ in the title refers to a complex narrative structure, which like the fabulous Argentinean dance, moves in an intricate forward and reverse motion. The ‘Satan’ refers [along with other aspects] to a strain of millenarianism. The story, [and there is one], is challenging to follow. But filmgoers familiar with the other work of the director Bela Tarr will know that his films are as much about parables and metaphors as they are about stories. The Turin Horse (A torinói ló, 2011) was his most recent [and sadly his last] feature released in the UK. Satantango is adapted from a novel by László Krasznahorkai, which, apparently, is as complex as the film adapted from it.

A recent innovation in film studies is the concept of ‘slow cinema’. Tarr is the master of this form. After 90 seconds of credits Satantango opens with a sequence shot, running just over seven minutes, that tracks round a quiet and dilapidated village as cows in the early morning meander out into the field for grazing. This is folowed by a blank screen and a voiceover [subtitled] that opens the story. This style dominates the rest of the film. However the film uses parallel editing to set up counterpoint among the characters and situations; complicated by overlapping time frames. The sound design is equally complex, often seemingly naturalistic but evocative. The film is clearly an allegorical critique of changing face in Eastern Europe over the 1980s and early 1990s. It references the earlier system of state control and the new free-market capitalist economy, which replaced it, with strong parallels to the work of Miklós Jancsó.

Whilst this is an epic screening I think the film deserves viewing the complete chapters and running time. As we move into the reverse sequences of the later chapters [for me when I saw it] both characters and the contradictions in their situations started to achieve some clarity. It is also a film that one will need [and I think want] to consider and discuss for a considerable time after a viewing.

With the distance of time since I saw the film I think Werkmeister Harmonies (Werkmeister harmóniák, 2000) and The Turin Horse are Tarr’s finest achievements. However Satantango, partly because of its epic length and complexity, is a unique and masterful cinematic creation.

The Invisible Woman (UK/USA 2014).

Felicity Jones as Nelly Ternan and Ralph Fiennes as Charles Dickens

Felicity Jones as Nelly Ternan and Ralph Fiennes as Charles Dickens

This film is based on the study by Claire Tomalin of Charles Dickens’s (Ralph Fiennes) illicit relationship with Ellen Ternan (Nelly – Felicity Jones). I decided to see it a week after its UK release. It turned out to be quite difficult. The two independent cinemas in Leeds may screen it, but that is not yet certain. None of the Multiplex listings I checked has the film in their programme. Finally I found it programmed at Bradford’s National Media Museum: though even here it was in the smaller of the Museum’s auditorium. The larger had Her; which had a dozen or maybe two dozen punters. The Dickens’s film had over fifty. I put this down to the dead hand of the Distributors, accentuated by it being the Award season. Our Distribution Companies clearly have little sense of British culture: Dickens may not be the celebrity focus he was in his own lifetime, but following on from his bi-centenary he remains a popular figure and writer.

The film’s title refers to the hidden nature of the relationship between Dickens and Nelly: hidden from the prurient gaze of the dominant Victorian public discourse. The film has been adapted from the book by Abi Morgan and directed by Ralph Fiennes. It has the expected graces of a British period film: beautifully composed and authentic looking production design and a sterling cast, including Kristin Scott Thomas as the Ternan matriarch and Tom Hollander as a delightful scapegrace Willkie Collins.  The plotting however is less conventional. The presentation is elliptical, not just in the use of flashbacks but also in the ellipses from the description of the affairs development. I did wonder if the limitations of a commercial running time, 111 minutes, had not had an effect. There were several missing emotional developments, including aspects of how Dickens bought his passion to fruition. This fits with the sense of the title, the woman hidden from view: but I was aware of these lacunae whilst watching the film.

It is Nelly’s viewpoint that pre-dominates as she provides the main narrative voice. There are however sequences which she will not have seen. One is when Dickens has the connecting door between the rooms of himself and his wife Catherine (Joanna Scanlon, another fine performance) boarded up. One imagines that Dickens never told Nelly of this incident.

The absences in the film are not just down to discretion. We see sex scenes between Dickens and Nelly and also between Nelly and her later husband, George Wharton (Tom Burke). These throw an interesting and unexpected light on sexuality in the Victorian era.

Claire Tomalin has an excellent piece in The Guardian Review (01-02-2014). She describes how she persuaded Ralph Fiennes not only to direct but also to take the part of Dickens in the film – clearly she is a fine judge of actor and character. She also comments on some differences between her study and the film. These have affected the ending of them film, making it less downbeat. However, it also has the effect of making Nelly a less interesting and less complex character.

This is an excellent production and deserves better than the ‘limited release’ accorded it.

The Patience Stone / Syngué Sabour, pierre de patience (Afghanistan, France, Germany, UK, 2013).

1913

This was the first seriously impressive film that I have seen in 2014. Unfortunately it seems to be suffering from a very limited release in the UK. It is definitely worth seeking out.

The film is adapted from a novella of the same name – translated from the French by Polly McLean (Vintage 2011). The author, Atiq Rahimi, has also directed this film version.   The book is set in one room in a small dwelling in Kabul. On a mattress on the floor lies a wounded mujaheddin. His wound is in the back of the neck and he is in a seemingly permanent coma. He is tended by his younger wife who has to arrange the saline drip, or often a water and salt substitute. She talks to him constantly, however she talks about matters and experiences that she would presumably avoid if he was conscious. At times she reads briefly from a Koran, marking her place with a feather. The title of book and film refers to a precious object that the woman recalls that her father told her of: “You talk to it, and talk to it. And the stone listens, absorbing all your words, all your secrets, until one fine day it explodes. Shatters into tiny pieces. …. Sang-e sabur!”

The book is sited almost wholly in the small, bare room where the woman tends her husband. We find out about what happens beyond these walls from the woman and from an unidentified narrative voice. A couple of times her two daughters venture into the room. Later she takes them to stay with her sister, who has both employment and a place to live. A battle ebbs and flows in the streets. A Mullah calls several times to pray for the man, but the wife manages to avoid letting him in. We hear her call to neighbours on occasions. And two sets of mujaheddin visit the room: once when she is absent once when she is present. The book struck me as having a fairly detached description and commentary upon the characters and events in the story.

Not surprisingly the film has a less detached sense, seeing and hearing the characters and their actions is a much more immediate experience. And the performance of Golshifteh Farahani as the woman is both powerful and involving for the audience. Moreover, the film, unlike the book, shows us the events beyond the room. We follow the woman and her children into a basement shelter where we also meet her neighbours. We see the Mullah a he makes his brief calls. We follow the woman through the streets of Kabul and to the rooms of her sister. And we see the visits of the mujaheddin and the consequent actions.

Even so the film follows the book’s plot and characterisations fairly faithfully. One difference that puzzled me was that in the Koran is taken away by the first group of Muhadenne, leaving only the feather behind. In the film it remains in the room.

This appears to be Rahini’s first film. He had the good sense to arrange for Jean-Claude Carriére to adapt the book into a screenplay. Carriére is, of course, well known for his work with Luis Buñuel. In his eighties he remains amazingly productive. The last seriously good film that I saw before The Patience Stone was The Artist and the Model, also scripted by Carriére. Whilst the film is faithful to the book it also contains themes and motifs familiar from Carriere’s other film work: a couple of moments reminded me also of Buñuel. Centrally we have the unconventional passive male in the presence of a woman. Then there is the exploration of sexuality linked to an oppressive obsession. And there is the contrast presented between a woman’s access to sexuality – through choice, marriage and prostitution.

Dial M for Murder in 3D

Dial-M-For-Murder_14

This was the first of four productions that Alfred Hitchcock made for the Warner Brothers studio. The early fifties were the height of Hollywood attempts, through technological innovation, to roll back the tide of television and the new world of leisure. Most spectacularly, but also the most short-lived, 3D offered a unique cinematic experience. For a time, with a film like Warner’s House of Wax (1953), audiences were seduced. But by the time Dial M for Murder came out in 1954 the craze was in its last days. The unevenness of presentations in the new format, and to a degree the basic cardboard and gel spectacles, soon dented audience interest. Most audiences, certainly in the UK, saw this film in a 2D version. Despite these problems the film was a success, it took at least $6 million on a budget of under $1.5 million.

The 2D version has been the standard release on both 35mm and video for years. In fact Hitchcock and his production team use the traditional techniques to produce a sense of depth in many shots: lighting, colour gradation, size and placement, . . . Like the earlier Rope (1948) the film is adapted from a stage play confined to one interior set (written by Fredrick Knott, first for television then the theatre). The film opens this out a little, with additional scenes, including exteriors. Apart from the 3D version, Hitchcock and his crew, including Robert Burks on cinematography, had to adjust to the new wide screen format – 1.85:1. They also had to manage the new colour film process, Eastmancolor. So there were all sorts of technical challenges involved in the production.

In terms of plot we have Tony Wendice (Ray Milland) married to Margot (Grace Kelly) who is in love with a writer Mark Halliday (Robert Cunnings). Since Margot is the partner with the money Tony sets up a murder scheme involving C A Swann (Anthony Dawson). As invariably happens in the movies, the plot goes awry. Nothing daunted, Tony implicates his wife in the death of Swann. Mark attempts to solve the mystery by using his ill-suited skills as a writer of murder mysteries. But the real solution relies on Inspector Hubbard (John Williams). As usual in Hitchcock films there is a MacGuffin, which is the key, which passes round the characters. But thematically it is about the threatened heroine, a sexual triangle, guilt and innocence, and a touch of voyeurism.

The real star of the film is Ray Milland who projects the husband as cynical but charming. By comparison Robert Cummings is passé: it seems that Grace Kelly shared this view as according to Donald Spoto her affair during the production was with Milland not Cummings. It shows in the finished film: her tender glances are to Tony not Mark. Dawson and Williams are both excellent. And Patrick Allen has a walk-on part with a handbag.

The handbag, and a woman’s workbox, along with the telephone and the key are the props that Hitchcock and Burks highlight through the 3D process. Most 3D films had ‘in your face` sequences, literally. This film eschews these, apart from the credits (personably by the studio), a telephone dial, one shot of the key and in a really dramatic sequence, a pair of scissors. However, right through the film the distinctive sense of depth, which is 3D’s virtue, is used to great effect.

The 3D process was cumbersome, required additional lighting to cope with the two-camera set-up and filters, and was not that good for close-ups. One notices that Hitchcock’s fondness for the large close-up is mostly absent in this film. In exhibition the 3D version is dimmer than the 2D version. And process shots are problematic, especially noticeable in the street scenes which act as transitions. However the digital 3D process is more audience friendly than the 1950s 35mm process. The glasses don’t often fall off and they work even when askew. And generally the 3D effect seems to work across the auditorium. I did see a 35mm 3D version of Dial M for Murder in the 1990s. We were advised to sit at the back of the auditorium to get the 3D effect: it did work, but other people elsewhere in the auditorium were less fortunate.

I tend to agree with Mark Kermode about the process generally. However Dial M for Murder, as you might expect with Hitchcock, utilises the technology to intelligent effect. In the famous interview with Truffaut he is fairly dismissive about the film. But I find it difficult to think of another 3D film where the sense of depth is so impressive.

Moreover the film is full of the touches and motifs that one associate with Hitchcock. So there are crossovers with Blackmail (1929), Rope, Notorious (1946), Strangers on a Train (1951) and, still to come, Vertigo (1958). It possibly affected Hitchcock’s collaborators. The music is by Dmitri Tiomkin, but frequently it sounded as if I was listening to Bernard Herrmann.  It is not the best of Hitchcock’s films: however, it has many of his virtues and is vastly entertaining. One of the remakes, A Perfect Murder (1998, Andrew Davis) demonstrates what is lost when lesser hands are at work.