Category: Melodrama

LIFF 28 #1: Death of a Cyclist (Muerte de un ciclista, Spain 1955)

The opening scene of the film, illustrating the use of deep-focus as Juan reaches the accident before the reluctant Maria

The opening scene of the film, illustrating the use of deep-focus as Juan reaches the accident before the reluctant María.

Muerte de un ciclista features in the short retrospective of films by Luis García Berlanga and Juan Antonio Bardem offered at the 28th Leeds International Film Festival. Unfortunately this title appeared to be projected from an American DVD, but even so its status as an important film produced in Spain under the Franco regime was not in doubt.

The screening was introduced (sorry, I missed the speaker’s name – anybody know?) and we were told about Bardem’s difficulties with censorship. Apparently the censors refused his original ending but Bardem tried the strategy of offering multiple choices for an alternative ending, gambling perhaps that the censors would be hoist with their own petard. I’m still thinking about how the final version actually works in terms of ideological struggle.

María (Lucia Bose) and Juan (Alberto Closas) as the lovers.

María (Lucia Bosè) and Juan (Alberto Closas) as the lovers.

The film has been discussed as relating to various styles and genres. I was surprised by the extent to which I began to see it as a film noir. Partly I think it is because of the strong performance of Lucia Bosè as a convincing femme fatale – albeit seemingly weak, but in practice deadly in her selfishness. Bosè, though still only 24, was a former Miss Italy and already a star, but was about to move to Spain to marry the leading matador Luis Miguel Dominguín. She has great erotic appeal in the film despite some of the unflattering early 1950s fashions. Her early successes were in neo-realist films and these offer another starting point for classifying Muerte de un ciclista.

The film begins with the incident that provides the title. Lucia Bosè is María, a wealthy married woman driving her lover Juan (Alberto Closas) back from a tryst when her car hits a cyclist on an open road. Juan wants to try to save the dying man, but María hurries him away fearing exposure. The man does indeed die and the lovers realise that they are going to have to live with the fear of exposure. This fear is heightened by the local celebrity gossip who suggests he knows something about María but won’t say what it is. She must try to find out what he knows and Juan goes into the working-class quarters of Madrid attempting to find out if the dead man’s family know anything following the police investigation of the death.

The introduction to the film pointed out that 1955 in Spain was marked by student protests in the universities (and by a meeting of filmmakers at Salamanca University) and such scenes occur in this film since Juan is a junior university teacher – a post he has because his brother-in-law is the university dean. What follows the opening accident is a narrative structured something like a neo-realist film. In an attempt to prevent their guilt becoming known, Juan and María undergo several ‘trials’ and humiliations – much like Antonio in Bicycle Thieves. In the process we learn more about the couple (though mostly more about Juan, primarily a ‘good man’ who has been a moral coward). The real question is what exactly was Bardem trying to say? How did he think his film would be seen as oppositional? Did he win his game of cat and mouse with the censor?

One argument is that the film is mainly concerned with exposing the lack of conscience of the middle classes and the ways in which they can easily ignore the sufferings of the poor – as well as the criticisms of the young. Bardem emphasise this by juxtaposing very different styles, e.g. the neo-realism of Juan’s visit to the home of the cyclist and the expressionist camerawork and low key lighting of scenes in night clubs and when Juan and María meet. Bardem had attended the first Spanish film school started in 1947. This was where he met Berlanga. Bardem was also self-taught in terms of his knowledge of Soviet Cinema and this is evident in one startling cut when the drunken gossiper throws a bottle at wedding and the edit reveals a broken window at the university where Juan is in trouble. The melodrama of Juan’s downfall is heightened by the symbolic shattered glass through which we see him.

Juan’s conscience and his ‘re-discovery’ of himself is at the heart of the narrative. He seems ill at ease with how his life has worked out but also thinks he has disappointed his mother – an important figure in the Spanish wealthy classes. There is a problem with some of the aspects of Juan’s story. He implies that he and María were teenage lovers during the war, but Lucia Bosè is far too young to be a thirty-plus María in 1955 (even if the ‘war’ is defined as including the fascists’ campaign against Republican guerillas that continued after 1939). I’m slightly puzzled by Juan and how Bardem uses him as the protagonist. He seems to be a weak man, easily led by María but not a fascist hero. The argument is that he is in some ways a ‘traitor’ to the class cause because he allows his conscience to trouble him! I’m also surprised the censors allowed the extensive footage of student protest. Overall, I didn’t get the same sense of a clear satire or anti-fascist allegory that I’ve found in the work of Carlos Saura. Rob Stone in his 2002 book on Spanish Cinema (Longman) suggests that Bardem’s juxtaposition of styles stripped away the sentimentality of neo-realism and allowed it to strengthen the impact of the melodrama (which in a Hollywood film would be purely ‘personal’ in its use of moral or social problems but which here points to the moral bankruptcy of a social class)(pp 48-9). Stone also points towards the use of deep focus (a feature of the long shot/long take approach in Rossellini’s neo-realist films) which enables Bardem to focus on Juan, but also to show the world around him – a world suffering under the impact of fascism.

I guess this discussion of melodrama points us towards Sirk and Fassbinder and their uses of melodrama as a means of subversion. I think I’d need another viewing to fully take on board Stone’s argument but I was certainly impressed by the melodrama/noir that is Muerte de un ciclista.

A detailed analysis of the film by Marsha Kinder (which expands Stone’s analysis) is available on the Criterion website.

The Babadook (Australia 2014)

See, . . . nothing under the bed!

See, . . . nothing under the bed!

Quite a few good films coming out of Oz in the last year or two I think. The Babadook is intriguing and I’m still thinking about it. There seem to be several references to classic haunted house/melodrama/demonic possession movies of the 1960s-80s though I worry that I might not recognise the modern references so I can’t really comment on how ‘fresh’ it is. But for a low budget Kickstarter-aided film from a relatively inexperienced director it is pretty impressive. There aren’t enough horror films made by women and it’s interesting that the most frightening scene in Jennifer Kent’s movie for me was the clutch of glammed-up young mothers at a children’s birthday party with their matching gift bags – very ‘Stepford Wives’!

The Babadook is that old standby, a magic or ‘possessed’ book, in this instance a child’s pop-up book with rather interesting drawings (charcoal or pen and ink?). The book finds its way into the decidedly Gothic old house of Amelia, the widowed mother of 6 year-old Samuel. Samuel’s father was killed driving his wife to hospital on the night she gave birth and Samuel’s upcoming birthday is a significant date. Amelia is sleeping badly and Samuel is a difficult child who is driving her to distraction with his fears about monsters. Neither of them need the further pressure of a new monster threatening to cause havoc and terror in the household. But once you’ve read the book, your fate is apparently sealed . . .

I was amazed to read that the film’s producer suggested that this was an ‘arthouse film’ and that this explained why it had only a limited release in Australia. The Guardian reported that the film made more in the first weekend of its UK release (on 147 screens) than in its entire release in Australia. Australian distribution seems to be in even more of a crisis than in the UK.

Samuel and Amelia are authentically weary souls in an often uncaring world – or is that just their perception?

Samuel and Amelia are authentically weary souls in an often uncaring world – or is that just their perception? Note the palette of blues, greys and greens.

It isn’t an art film for me, rather an intelligent genre film that marries the familiar tropes of the haunted house/demonic possession genre with the good old family melodrama. Apart from Samuel and the demon/ghost, the only other male character who appears more than once is the nice young man at the care home where Amelia works. Much more significant are Amelia’s sister and the older woman next door. Essie Davis is very good as Amelia and she joins Deborah Kerr (The Innocents), Nicole Kidman (The Others) and Bélen Rueda (The Orphanage) as a woman under pressure trying to cope with small children. The Babadook doesn’t have the budget of those earlier films and it doesn’t have the allegorical status of the latter two, but it is distinctive. I’m not sure how ‘Australian’ it is – or whether this matters. (In terms of its difficulties in getting a wide release in Australia, this seems contradictory – the more an Australian film is recognised by overseas audiences first, the better chance it is supposed to have with domestic audiences who respond to foreign commendations. At least, that’s how I read comments from Australia.)

The colour palette is drained and costumes have generally been chosen in muted colours. Added to that, the costumes look very old-fashioned (is this a period film?) and the actors in minor roles have unusual faces and expressions. Check out the trailer below. The television seems to play a bizarre range of violent cartoons and a selection of films that includes Mario Bava(!), George Méliès and a Barbara Stanwyck ‘woman in peril’ noir. (It appears to be The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, when it should be Sorry, Wrong Number?) The more I think about the film, the more references come to mind. Although the stories are different in terms of the ghost, there are strong connections to the Nakata Hideo film Dark Water (Japan 2002) which was in turn remade by Walter Salles for Hollywood. The social pressures on Amelia as a single mother are not as great as in the Japanese context but they are definitely there.

I think the film deserves its generally very good critical reception and I’m glad it seems to be attracting audiences. My only complaint would be that having imposed restraint for three quarters of the film, Jennifer Kent perhaps let go too much in the final quarter, changing the overall tone of the film.

Phoenix (Germany 2014)


bfi-london-film-festival-2014-title-block-750x680I’m glad I saw this on the big screen at Vue West End (but disappointed to miss the live appearance of the Nina Hoss). Put simply this is a great melodrama by Christian Petzold with a setting associated with the Trümmerfilme or ‘rubble film’. It includes elements from Fassbinder’s ‘BRD trilogy’ including the image of Hanna Schygulla as the Maria Braun character from The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979) stepping through the rubble and the nightclub at the heart of Lola (1981).

It is a few months after the end of the war in 1945 and two women drive into Switzerland. One is swathed in bandages and is being transported by her friend Lene. Beneath the bandages is Nelly, whose face has been disfigured during her escape from Auschwitz. She is about to visit a plastic surgeon and get a new face. Lene searches in the archives for a new Jewish identity for Nelly who was a famous popular singer before the war. Lene’s plan is that the pair of them should go to Palestine where Lene has already rented a flat in Haifa. But Nelly has other ideas – one of which involves finding her husband Johnny back in Berlin. This is where the bar, the Phoenix comes in. I won’t spoil the plot except to say that Johnny reappears in the guise of Ronald Zehrfeld (previously paired with Nina Hoss in Petzold’s Barbara (2012)). What follows has been likened to Hitchcock or film noir. There is a suggestion that Petzold didn’t know how to end the film, but I thought it was a perfect ending and as Howard Schumann suggests in his IMDB posting, it creates a moment so resonant that it could become one of the great final scenes in cinema.

The script is based on a novel by the French crime writer Hubert Monteilhet which was first adapted for the screen for a British film directed by J. Lee Thompson with Ingrid Thulin, Max von Sydow and Samantha Eggar in 1965 under the novel’s title Return From the Ashes (Le retour des cendres). This film (which I now want to see – I don’t remember it coming out – is only available on a Region 1 ‘print on demand’ DVD from MGM Archives). Petzold, working on a new adaptation with the late Harun Farocki, changed the location from Paris to Berlin and some of the other story elements – shifting the genre from crime melodrama to something more metaphorical concerned with identity and fidelity.

I’m a little frustrated that I can’t find a Press Pack for the film so I’m forced to look for interviews with Petzold to explore some of his ideas. The film was first seen at Toronto and has since then provoked a great deal of discussion – much of it querying why it was turned down by Cannes and Venice. I haven’t seen Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep yet but if it’s better than Phoenix it must be quite something. I’d like to explore aspects of the film in detail but I’d need to se it again first and I don’t want to spoil the surprises. What I would say is that it looks stupendous shot on Super 35 film in CinemaScope and with rich reds standing out against the rubble. Nina Hoss gives a breathtaking performance. Nelly has to gradually recover her confidence and her sense of self – and then the plot requires Nelly to play another role.

As well as Hitchcock and Franju (Eyes Without a Face) some critics have also referenced Douglas Sirk’s 1958 Hollywood adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel ‘A Time to Live and a Time to Die’ set in the last few months of the war. Sirk changed the title to A Time to Love and a Time to Die. Apart from the setting in a bombed out Berlin suburb for part of the film, Remarque’s story is rather different, but Sirk produced one of the first films to try to deal with the emotional lives of individuals in the chaos of Germany’s defeat. This is certainly what powers Phoenix. Nelly has to find an identity and a major part of her quest is to find out what happened to her husband. Did he betray her? Does he still love her? Does she love him? How will people live in the new Germany(s)? How will they deal with memories? The simplicity of Nelly’s final appearance is a response to these layered questions.

Soda Pictures have Phoenix for the UK and Sundance Selects for the US, Films We Like for Canada and Madman for Australia/New Zealand. In fact most territories are taking the film. Keep your eyes peeled – don’t miss it!

SPOILERS!! This trailer gives away a crucial plot development:

A Blast (Greece-Germany-Netherlands 2014)

Maria in the computer room listening to (and watching) porn

Maria in the computer room listening to (and watching) porn

bfi-london-film-festival-2014-title-block-750x680This was another LFF film that I admired more than enjoyed. Writer-director Syllas Tzoumerkas was in attendance and he is as dynamic and aggressive as his film. (There is also a co-writer Youla Boudali working on her second film with Tzoumerkas.) Given the terrible state of his country’s economy and the effects of the crash on all Greeks he has every right to be so and to deliver a film that lives up to its title.

The focus of the film is what the director described as a ‘lower middle-class’ family living somewhere on the coast. They own and run a grocery store and possibly own some land and another small property as well as living over the shop. The central character is Maria (Angeliki Papoulia) the dynamic member of the family. We see her as a young woman eager to go to university and then later as a mother of three small children and married to a handsome ship’s captain, Yannis. The narrative constantly shifts between flashbacks and the present until the last section which becomes a form of chase/escape. This structure is deliberate in trying to convey the social turmoil of the country. Maria and Yannis have a tempestuous relationship which is matched by the problems in her family. Mother runs the shop from her wheelchair and father seems ineffective. Maria’s sister Gogo has learning difficulties and her parents are relieved to marry her to Costas who works in the local waste disposal depot. This marriage also has problems as Costas is an abusive husband.

I think the film is distinctive in a number of ways. Maria is certainly a compelling character. Here is an intelligent attractive woman who has a passionate relationship with her husband and for whom separation is difficult. There is a great deal of overt sexual activity of all kinds in the film but arguably the most arresting sequence is when Maria, at a very low ebb and with Yannis at sea, goes into a computer room in some form of community centre and begins to search porn sites. I didn’t quite understand the scene but she seems to be searching for a specific category of hard porn – something she did with Yannis? The men at the other terminals all turn to stare at her as she watches the screen intently. Maria can also be extremely violent, both verbally and physically. As a representation of an intelligent woman put under enormous pressure this could be a very interesting case study for film and media students. Yannis is beautiful and seemingly calm. The press notes and interviews suggest that Yannis is rather an exotic creature for Maria’s family – more middle class perhaps? He has surprising liaisons during his trips away but still seems to be in love with Maria.

Apart from Maria as a character, the film is also distinctive in its layering of the complexity of the consequences of the economic crash. Businesses go under, families break up, criminal activity expands, government agencies can’t cope, ecological damage and destruction increases – the plot includes elements of all of these and presents them in a broken narrative in which the incoherence eventually leads to the final chase. Maria is determined to throw away whatever she has as a scream of anguish about the state of her life and the situation she finds herself in. The visual style of the film matches the urgency of the narrative with hand-held camerawork, swift tracking shots and a suitably raucous soundtrack (see the trailer below).

The film reminded me a little of other recent Greek films such as Dogtooth (2009), not so much in style or content but in its ‘edginess’ and confrontation. I haven’t seen any evidence of distribution deals for the UK/US but I think the film needs to be widely seen. (Although I suggest a tweak of the title. I take ‘a blast’ to be a description of a great experience – “We had a blast” – I don’t think that is the intended meaning here.) One review makes the point that this ‘blast’ is refreshingly different from the social realist drama the subject matter suggests.