Category: People

Sean Connery 1930 to 2020

So another of the big screen giants has passed on. One whose films I mainly enjoyed and whose gravitas, with the Scottish accent, was frequently a memorable experience. Whilst he was a very different character, both in culture and values, his career reminded me of his friend Michael Caine. There were the early years of minor movies and minor roles. Then the breakthrough and a screen image that was sexy and charismatic. This was followed by a long career as a major star with an increasing screen presence, partly due to the longevity and the impressiveness of his roles. Whilst their politics were rather different both generally represented conservative values but also made films which intentionally or not subverted those values. However Connery certainly essayed a wider range of roles and worked more extensively beyond the mainstream. He also often exuded a greater sense of irony whilst Caine often seemed to send himself up.

I saw several of Connery’s early films though I did not mark him out at the time, this included the gripping Hell Drivers (1957). The first time I remember being taken by him was in The Frightened City (1961) which had my favourite black and white cinematography format.

Then came the James Bond titles. I was never that impressed with the cycle. However, he was the most convincing Bond and only Daniel Craig has come close since then. I remember standing outside the ABC cinema in Bournemouth with friends and being entertained as the young men with female companions came out of the cinema clearly trying to emulate the Bond persona.

There was Marnie (1964) from Alfred Hitchcock. I never really liked the film and I have been irritated by the attempts by some Hitchcock fans to explain away the rape sequence. But Connery was ideal as the misogynistic protagonist. The Hill (1965) was a far more interesting film directed by Sydney Lumet. This brought out some of the interesting facets of the on-screen characteristics, including the rebellious streak and the stubborn determination. The Molly Maguires (1970), set in the Pennsylvania coal  mines in the 19th century was excellent, well scripted by Walter Bernstein and directed by Martin Ritt. This was a powerful trade union story and one that the mainstream US industry has tended to avoid and downplay.

‘The Hill’ with Harry Andrews

The Offence (1972) was again directed by Sidney Lumet and adapted from his own play by John Hopkins. Connery’s regular characteristics were here employed in a vicious and violent interrogation of Ian Bannen’s suspected rapist. Both actors were impressive and the film deserves wider recognition.

Zardoz (1974 was written, produced and directed by John Boorman. Connery played a ‘brutal’, a group dominated by ‘the Eternals’ in a future society. In a complex and sometime complicated plot Zed breaks into the world of the Eternals and disrupts it in numerous ways. Audiences at the time found the film confusing and it was panned by the critics. I was fascinated by the quirky SF story from Boorman and the film looked great with cinematography by Godfrey Unsworth. There was the added bonus of Charlotte Rampling.

In 1975 he appeared in two interesting films. The Wind and the Lion set in early 20th century Morocco as the USA flexes its imperial muscle. But the focus was the contrasting characters of Mulai Ahmed er Raisuni (Connery) and Teddy Roosevelt (Brian Keith). The director John Milius was not really equipped to handle such a colonial episode but Connery, in no way Arabic, is engaging. I however prefer The Man Who Would be King. Taken from a Kipling story; the writer is an imperialist but also has an understanding and sympathy for the great sub-continent. Connery, as Daniel Draviot, is part of a duo with Michael Caine as Peachy Camehan. This is the sort of adventure story in which both actors excel. The director John Huston, with co-writer Gladys Hill, gives the story drama, emotion but also humour. And the landscape looks fine in Oswald Morris’ fine cinematography. The indigenous peoples are merely props for these adventurers but Saeed Jaffrey as Billy Fish is also memorable.

1976 saw Richard Lester’s film Robin and Marion. This was an ensemble of talents. James Goldman wrote the screenplay, David Watkins provided the cinematography and John Barry the music. Connery was ably supported by an excellent cast including Audrey Hepburn, Robert Shaw and Nicol Williamson. This is the best version on film of the Robin Hood Legend. The plot develops with real interest and both drama and humour. And the elegiac tone is impressive.

There was a gap of six years before a film that seems equivalent, Five Days One Summer (1982). Fred Zinnemann ably directed this mountaineering film set in the 1930s Alps. Despite poor reviews this was a film for the climbing buff. The accuracy of the representation of mountaineering was no doubt due to the presence of Hamish MacInnes as an advisor and able stand-in on the mountains. The film also has the longest parting between lovers that I can remember.

The Name of the Rose was a credible adaptation of Umberto Eco’s novel and a feast of semiotics. Connery’s William of Somerville provided a rational centre in a monastery full of hysterical fundamentalist and misguided believers. The young Christian Slater as Adso provided a youthful foil to Connery.

Then there is the Oscar-winning performance in The Untouchables (1987). This is classic Brian de Palma film with the happy addition of an Ennio Morricone score. Connery’s Irish-American cop is not that Irish but he does have one of the great death scenes in Hollywood films.

‘The Untouchables’ with Kevin Costner.

The Russia House (1990) is from a John Le Carré novel and it is hard to go wrong with that, especially when Tom Stoppard does the adaptation . It [as usual] lacks the complexity of the original but the unwinding of the jigsaw is fascinating. Michelle Pfeiffer is good as the romantic interest and James Fox is really fine as the British spy master.

Sean Connery’s last film outing that I really rate is Finding Forrester, a fascinating study directed by Gus Van Sant. Connery is the titular writer and recluse. Rob Brown is a young aspiring Afro-American writer. Both are convincing in their very different characters. The treatment of a black artist in a white-dominated culture needs greater depth but the film holds the attention and has a satisfactory finale.

Connery had a few films that bombed at the box office but in most cases they were successful. Much of his career was spent in Hollywood productions like The Hunt for Red October (1990). Whilst this and others were very well produced the narratives tended to the conventional. I think his most interesting work was in independent and European films. And the best of these resurface regularly and I am sure that they will continue to do so. There is no doubt about either his star quality or his position in the top film/actor lists.

Note, Film 4 are screening Robin and Marion and The Man Who Would be King this Sunday starting at 4 p.m.

Ingrid Bergman: in her own words (Jag är Ingrid, Sweden-Denmark-Germany 2015)

I was profoundly moved by this film (currently streaming on MUBI) for many reasons. It’s a film about a mother, a wife and a lover as much as it is about a strong independent woman determined to pursue her art. The two can’t be separated. There is one line in the film spoken by Isabella Rossellini with genuine feeling, when she gives ‘charm’ as the one word to sum up her mother and that struck me quite forcibly. It’s perhaps a strange word to choose about your mother and in other contexts we are often suspicious about celebrities described as ‘having charm’, as if we know this masks other possible less acceptable sides to their personalities. But each of Ingrid Bergman’s four children agree that their mother was always fun to be with and they remember that fondly even though she was absent from their childhood homes for much of the time. When she was there she made it up to them. Her ‘absences’ were mainly to do with work but she was clearly so determined to pursue what she wanted that needing to be close to her children was not something that would stop her.

Bergman’s was a remarkable career, arguably not matched by any other actor. She began, as many Swedish actors of her generation, in drama school and then moved quickly into films with her first credited role in 1935 aged 20. She also got married for the first time in 1936. Her Swedish film career lasted until 1940 by which time she had already repeated one of her roles in Hollywood and from 1941 she quickly became a Hollywood star contracted to David O. Selznick. In a few short years Bergman became a beloved figure in the US before she ‘scandalised’ America in 1949 by moving to Italy to work for and fall in love with Roberto Rossellini, leaving behind her husband and her daughter. Her Rossellini years ended in the mid 1950s by which time she had moved to Paris, making a film for Jean Renoir and eventually re-connecting with Hollywood, mainly on European productions. The last part of her career was spent working out of London.

A still from her first screen test for Selznick

Ingrid Bergman was a different kind of ‘global film star’. All the stars (and the filmmakers) of classical Hollywood were ‘global’ in the sense that their films were seen everywhere. Several stars had travelled from Europe to America and possibly back – but usually to the same country they had left several years before. But few had made films (and sometimes appeared on stage) in productions in five different languages (Swedish, German, English, Italian and French). It was an extraordinary career. I offer all this as context since this documentary focuses more on Bergman herself and less on the films she appeared in. IMDb lists 55 credits for film and television (around full 40 feature films). I feel slightly distanced from the discussion of Bergman as an actor and star simply because I don’t approach her as a Hollywood star primarily. She herself in the documentary says that the films she made with Rossellini did not appeal to audiences and there is an implication that she herself didn’t like them or value them that much. This is disappointing since it was watching Stromboli (1949) in a BFI preview theatre which first caused me to become interested in Bergman and I’ve come to like the other films with Rossellini as well. This doesn’t mean I don’t necessarily like the American films – I think her playing in Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946) remains one of the great viewing pleasures. I’ve also enjoyed Renoir’s Elena et les hommes (1956) and the Swedish June Night (1940).

In formal terms, this ‘bio doc’ might be grouped with the trilogy of similar films by Asif Kapadia which present the stories of Ayrton Senna (2010), Amy Winehouse (2015) and Diego Maradona (2019). As in those stories, the director, Stig Björkman (a celebrated veteran film writer, critic and journalist), has been able to ‘present’ the story of his subject entirely through either Bergman’s own words (recorded in diaries and letters) and images (captured on 16mm) plus archive film and television and the stories of her immediate family and friends. Alicia Vikander, in many ways a contemporary star with a similar career path, reads Bergman’s words from her diaries. The major difference between Björkman’s film and those of Kapadia is that Bergman’s is a much longer story and although it includes ‘media moments’ when she scandalised America, this is only part of the story and not a defining element of the whole. There are other lesser differences as well but overall this quartet represent a popular form of biopic, able to draw upon archive material with seeming authenticity – though of course each film is still written and edited and the choices made still determine how the narrative is likely to be read by the audience.

Ingrid with her three children by Roberto Rossellini

What emerges from Bergman’s story is a narrative that exposes her difficult childhood and teenage years when she lost her mother at a very early age and then her beloved father. This is then contrasted with her happiness in bearing four beautiful children in the difficult circumstances outlined above (i.e. the divorces and the absences). The film is full of insights and we learn that Ingrid’s remarkable poise and calmness for the camera comes from her early experience of being photographed by her father and this in turn led to her own adoption of a film camera (16mm and colour) to record her own children (she came from a middle-class family and was used to a life with the privileges of travel and nice homes). I’ve seen comments by viewers who claim to be easily bored by ‘home movies’ but I think that Bergman’s camera captures something lively and emotionally powerful. There are more ‘talking head’ ‘witness statements’ in this film than in those of Kapadia, I think (i.e. more statements recorded later). This wasn’t a problem for me and as an aside it seemed to me that more women spoke about working with her. It was interesting to hear Liv Ullman and Sigourney Weaver. I hadn’t realised that there was so much discussion about Bergman’s height (references vary but 5′ 8” to 5′ 9” seems most common) in Hollywood, but Sigourney Weaver explains that it was a relief to meet a female actor who had never been bothered by her height – which in the 1940s was tall for women. Out of all the Hollywood footage the most compelling is the first screen test Bergman had in Hollywood for Selznick, for which the clapperboard says  “No Make-Up, No lip gloss”. Ingrid looks young, fresh,  vital and very lovely with an immediate warm response to the camera. (See the last shot of the trailer below and the still above.) No wonder they wanted her.

Bergman’s beauty remained throughout her life . . .

I watched Ava Gardner on screen a few days ago and she was breathtakingly beautiful. Ingrid Bergman was also beautiful but she had something else as well. I’m still not quite sure what it was and it’s interesting that I have appreciated it more as I’ve got older. I’m going to look at her films again. As far as this documentary is concerned I should also report that Michael Nyman’s music is used throughout. Personally I like Nyman’s music but I know he is ‘Marmite’ – with great fans and also those who can’t stand the music. My only gripe about the film is that sometimes Alicia Vikander’s modern American-tinged accent grates. I like Ms Vikander as an actor ver much and I place the blame on the director. I’m sure she could have read the diaries and letters in a style closer to Bergman’s in the 1930s/40s. I’ve emphasised  that the documentary doesn’t cover all the films, but even so I was disappointed that there is very little reference to her time in London in the final part of her career and the three pictures she made in the UK.

[Once last point for Keith. This film is listed as 1.78:1 aspect ratio, so the pre-1953 film footage should be Academy and it is, being placed inside the 16:9 frame. But having watched it on both my computer and on the TV screen and then on a recording I made when it was shown on the BBC Imagine . . . series in 2017-18, I noted that sometimes captions which had slid outside the Academy frame were clipped off by masking within the 16:9 frame. I’m not sure how that happened.]

Kirk Douglas 1916 to 2020

Kirk Douglas died in February this year. Recently terrestrial television screened the video of his Hollywood break-through film Champion (1949). Douglas played the title role of Midge, a boxing champ driven by ambition. Throughout the film Midge is ruthless in the way that he uses people to climb to the top. But it is not just ambition, Midge is riven with class envy. In the dramatic finale Douglas plays a boxing bout with the intensity that marked his whole career. The film’s script came from Ring Lardner and Carl Foreman and was directed by Mark Robson. There is excellent cinematography from Franz Planer and fine supporting acting from [among others] Arthur Kennedy, Paul Stewart and Ruth Roman. Douglas received a nomination at the Academy in the Best Actor category.

Intensity was what marked out a whole series of Douglas performances over the years. In his debut film in 1946, The Strange Loves of Martha Ivers, he is one of a pair with a guilty  secret; fortunate to play opposite Barbara Stanwyck at this stage of his career. As Whit in Out of the Past (1947) he is the jealous crime boss in what is the seminal entry into classic film noir. In 1950 he played Jim in one of my favourite Tennessee Williams plays The Glass Menagerie. Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (1951) saw Douglas as Chuck, the most ruthless and ambition reporter ever in a Hollywood film and one that subverted the genre to real effect.

“George Stevens, who presented Douglas with the AFI Life Achievement Award in 1991, said of him: “No other leading actor was ever more ready to tap the dark, desperate side of the soul and thus to reveal the complexity of human nature.” [quoted on Wikipedia]

Then there was the fine Vincente Minnelli film, The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) where his Jonathan was a producer as ruthless and ambitious in a film studio as Midge was in the boxing ring. And with Minnelli again in Lust for Life  (1956) his Vincent Van Gogh was less accurate than in European biopics but where he made the agonies of this famous painter all too real. He received nomination as Best Actor at the Academy for the last two roles.

His intense physicality meant that Douglas regularly played in westerns. His first film in the genre was Along the Great Divide (1951), which featured a lynching. The Big Trees (1952) saw Douglas as Jim Fallon, exploiting the California forests and the Quaker homesteaders’. In Man Without a Star (1955) , working with King Vidor, Douglas plays drifter Dempsey. A past experience has given the drifter a hatred of barbed wire, which he treats with a savagery equal to his treatment of people. The Indian Fighter (1955) sees Douglas’s Johnny leading a wagon train and romancing a daughter of the Native-American Chief.

In 1955, like  a number of major stars as the studio system declined, Douglas moved into film producing with Bryna Productions. Accounts by fellow artists suggests that he was as intense in his production role as when acting. This led to two classic titles directed by Stanley Kubrick. In Paths of Glory (1957) he played Colonel Drax, the liberal officer confronted by the ambitious and ruthless higher command. The trench warfare scenes are excellent. The court martial and execution of ordinary soldiers is brutal; the film was banned in France for several years. Liberal values also informed Spartacus (1960) with a script about a slave revolt against the Roman Empire by blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo. The film  has one of the most famous lines in  Hollywood productions;

“I am Spartacus” repeated a number of times.

The film helped Trumbo emerge for his work under pseudonyms and the arguments with Douglas led Kubrick to become obsessively auteurist. The same year saw Douglas producer and star, working with Richard Fleischer, as a rather different protagonist; the one-eyed ferocious Viking leader Einar.

Douglas remained active in the following decades. One outstanding title was an elegiac western, Lonely are the Brave (1962), produced by Douglas also with a screenplay by Dalton Trumbo as “Jack” Burns (Douglas) is  man, and his horse,  out of time in a west with fencing, helicopters and large fast-moving trucks.

Unfortunately Douglas, clearly with Zionist sympathies, produced, two films misrepresenting the occupation of Palestine. In Cast a Giant Shadow (1966) he is a US officer working with the Hagannah to drive Arabs from their lands, though the film does not play it this way. And in 1976 there was a TV version, among many, of Victory at Entebbe. He had already appeared in 1953’s The Juggler. A film producer by Stanley Kramer and directed by Edward Dmytryk [with a rather different shadow on his career] actually made in the occupied territories.

From the 1960s Douglas worked extensively on television  productions and in international co-productions. The Heroes of Telemark (1962) was a world war II action drama directed by Anthony Mann. Catch Me a Spy (1971) was made in Britain and France an involved, predictably for the period, Russian espionage. Whilst The Fury (1978) was directed by Brian de Palma and involved Douglas an ex-CIA agent dabbling in psychics and telekinesis.

In the 1970s Kirk Douglas’s son Michael started a career in film acting and producing. It was Kirk who acquired the rights to ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’. The film won five major Academy Awards, a rare feat. Douglas himself won many awards including several nominations at the Academy; but he did not win an Acting Oscar, only a Honorary Award in 1996. He is in good company there; it often seems that more of the Hollywood greats’ failed to win Academy Awards than did actually walk off with one. His son Michael has won two, but that probably says more about the modern Academy than Kirk’s acting output.

He worked with many of the modern really fine writing and directing talents: apart from those mentioned this included Anthony Mann, Alexander Mackendrick and Robert Aldrich. Surprisingly, given his western output, he never worked with John Ford; [currently being re-examined by Roy]. He did work quite few times with Burt Lancaster, including Doc Holiday opposite his Wyatt Earp (Gunfight at OK Corral, 1957) and scapegrace Richard opposite Lancaster’s Reverend Anderson in The Devil’s Disciple (1959). He never played opposite Olivia de Havilland though both were of the Studio generation, of similar ages and both passing on this year, 2020.

I have seen more of Douglas’ work in the 1950s and 1960s. He was always memorable and, like Lancaster, he appeared to have been a good judge of scripts; not that many bloomers in his career. Whether he was snarling at the excited and baying audience (The Champion): smoothly charming the unwary (The Bad and the Beautiful): or agonizing over life and work (Lust for Life): Douglas always bared the soul of his character to the moviegoer.

John Ford’s legacy in the 21st Century

John Ford on location at West Point for ‘The Long Gray Line’ (1955)  produced by Columbia Pictures. ©SPE Archives & Collections

John Ford (1894-1973) was born to parents who arrived in New England in 1872 as migrants from the West of Ireland. ‘Jack’ Feeney was the 10th of 11 children. He moved to Hollywood in 1914 where his older brother Francis was already a successful actor, director and producer. He became first Jack Ford and then John Ford in 1923. He directed his first film in 1917 and his last in 1966. In the intervening years he became the most successful Oscar winner as a director winning 4 times plus two more wins for his wartime documentaries. This is a ‘global film’ blog, so why the interest in Ford? Hollywood is too important to ignore but most of contemporary mainstream Hollywood doesn’t interest me. I am interested in some aspects of American Independent cinema and certainly in African American cinema. I’m also interested in 1940s-1970s Hollywood, especially if it has been influential in global terms.

John Ford made films in Ireland (2), UK (1) the South Pacific (2) Mexico (1) and Kenya (1) as well as numerous territories as required by the US military. He was also one of the most influential filmmakers of the 20th century with ardent admirers such as Kurosawa Akira in Japan, Xie Jin in China, Satyajit Ray in Bengal, Ingmar Bergman in Sweden and many other leading filmmakers worldwide. His impact on global film was considerable.

But I wonder what younger filmmakers and younger audiences make of a director who died over 40 years ago? The Ford film that is arguably the most remembered is The Searchers (1956), a film that was successful at the time with audiences but took much longer to become a critics’ favourite. Younger audiences are most likely to know it because it became an important influence on George Lucas who refers to it in Star Wars (1977) and perhaps also Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) which borrows narrative ideas from it expressed in Paul Schrader’s script. Many younger cinephiles might not have seen The Searchers but they will know the opening and closing shots of the film which have been endlessly re-cycled over the last 40 years. But there is still resistance to The Searchers, exemplified by a recent Guardian piece by a senior film writer who agreed to watch the film having avoided it during his career as a film journalist. In fact, he hadn’t seen any of Ford’s films. Why is that? The answer is that, like several of Ford’s films, this is a Western starring John Wayne. Not only that but Wayne’s character is an embittered racist – or at least that is what is assumed. I’m not criticising anyone who has avoided a Wayne film for that reason – there are several Hollywood stars whose performances I don’t particularly enjoy and therefore whose films I don’t watch (including several of Wayne’s). However, Ford’s relationship with Wayne is complex and The Searchers is, on every level, a remarkable film that does not succumb to straightforward readings.

There are several reasons why John Ford’s films (over 140 of them in all, but a more ‘modest’ 50 or so features since 1929) are still important in 2020:

  • his ideas about African American social history and the Civil War
  • his ideas about Native American history
  • his sense of Irish identity
  • his respect for the US miltary
  • the roles for women in his films
  • his ‘independent’ status throughout the years of the Studio System
  • his status within the industry as a highly-skilled visual technician, editor, director and dialogue writer
  • his position re the concept of ‘film author’

No doubt there are more but that’s quite enough for now. I will attempt over the coming weeks to explore some of those 50 films and their associated discourses. Perhaps Keith will say something about Ford’s silent cinema films about which I have very limited knowledge? At this time of lockdown, it’s worth pointing out that three Ford Westerns are on BBC iPlayer for the next few months. Otherwise it is becoming quite difficult to find the films on DVD/Blu-ray in the UK. Presumably quite a few are available on Amazon Prime and Netflix? Over the years I have worked with several of the films, but few have made it onto the blog from ‘draft’ to ‘published’, mainly because there is so much to say and they never seem to be completed. One you might find interesting is Sergeant Rutledge (US 1960), a landmark film in some ways.

Michel Piccoli, actor 1925 to 2020

Michel Piccoli was one of the most familiar faces in French cinema over the second half of the 20th century. He is listed as having made over 200 screen appearances; on film, on television and in short films/documentaries. This is greater than that of Max von Sydow, who was himself an incredibly active actor. Piccoli played a variety of characters but one common type was the bourgeois faced with economic, social or sexual problems. Some of these characters featured in films by major European talents including Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut and Luis Buñuel.

He started in films immediately after the war in 1945. His early roles were mainly small supporting ones, often uncredited. He had a speaking part in Jean Renoir’s French Cancan (1955), a vibrant film in Technicolor, recreating Montmartre in the 1890s. He also appeared in a film produced in the German Democratic Republic /  Deutsche Demokratische Republik [GDR], Ernst Thälmann – Führer seiner Klasse (1955). This probably reflected his relative left-wing views. Then he had an uncredited role in Rene Clair’s Les grandes manoeuvres (1955). And he obtained  roles on television, both in TV films and TV series.

He had a supporting role as a night club owner in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Les Doulos (1962). Then in 1963 he played Paul Javal in Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mepris. The action takes place during a film production; we actually hear Fritz Lang’s famous put-down of CinemaScope, suitable only for ‘snakes and funerals’. Paul is married to Camille (Brigitte Bardot); how we envied him. But she is the target of producer Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance). The latter is an extreme caricature of the overbearing over-sexed Hollywood producer; an early role model for Harvey Weinstein. But the film is equally memorable for the way Godard uses Raoul Courtard’s cinematography and Agnès Guillemot’s editing.

The following year saw his first outing with Luis Buñuel who was making his first collaboration with the writer Jean-Claude Carrière on Diary of a Chambermaid  / Le journal d’une femme de chambre (1963). The film was adapted from a novel of the same name by Octave Mirbeau (1900) and followed an English language version directed by Jean Renoir for a Hollywood independent production in 1946. This French version enjoys the advantage of the casting of Jeanne Moreau as the chambermaid, Célestine. Piccoli plays Monsieur Monteil, the head of the decadent household at the château where Celestial works. Piccoli’s character is an obsessed and exploitative bourgeois; both animals and women are his prey. Piccoli went on to appear in several more films directed by Buñuel. Belle de Jour (1967) stars Catherine Deneuve as a wife who seeks sexual variety by working in a brothel. Michel Piccoli as Henri Husson is a friend of her husband and but also a client at the brothel. He attempts to us his knowledge to pressurize Séverine (Deneuve) into providing sexual favours. This is Piccoli in his most familiar role; cool, aloof and predatory. His role in The Milky Way / La Voie lactée (1969) is a cameo as the Marquis de Sade. The film is a picaresque. story following the pilgrim’s way to Santiago de Compestelo with a variety of characters and theological issues; all presented in sardonic manner. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie, 1972) finds Piccoli in a supporting role as a government minister. The film has one of Buñuel’s favourite plot devices, recurring dinner parties or similar events that never actually complete.

Piccoli appeared along with a host of French, German and US stars in Is Paris Burning? (Paris brûle-t-il ?), a 1966 French-American epic historical war film about the liberation of Paris in August 1944 by the French Resistance and the Free French Forces during World War II.

In The Young Girls of Rochefort (Les demoiselles de Rochefort) is a 1967 musical and romantic comedy directed by Jacques Demy, Piccoli is part of a cast which includes Catherine Deneuve, Françoise Dorleac, Danielle Darrieux and the non-French Gene Kelly. Piccoli plays the owner of a music store which is an important site in the key romance between Deneuve and Kelly. He and Danielle Darrieux provide supporting older generation romance.

Themroc (1973) saw Piccoli in the lead role in a film that gave two fingers to censors and became a cult classic. The actors had to manage without dialogue as the sound track was grunts, howls and similar. The plot included cannibalism and incest among other taboo activities. I, like many, enjoyed it immensely.

With his next film, La grande bouffe (Blow-out, 1973) Piccoli seemed in danger of becoming typed cast. The film celebrated suicide by over eating; with Michel one of a quartet dedicated to gross indulgence. The film also became a cult title; as funny as Themroc but not quite as subversive. The film also offered a plethora of canine characters but not in any way suitable for English susceptibilities.

French actors like Michel Piccoli appear to have a longer career that is the case in mainstream US and British industry; and Piccoli worked almost exclusively in French/European productions. In 1990 he had the title part in a fine Louis Malle film, Milou en mai / Milou in May. Set in an atypical 1968 setting, rural South-western France; family life and a funeral are disrupted in a minor way but mirroring the wider conflicts of this memorable year. French film titles suffer in English translation but the US release was especially maladroit, May Fools.

In La belle noiseuse (1991) Piccoli played the almost retired painter who revisits his art. The film is loosely adapted from the short story ‘Le Chef-d’œuvre inconnu’ (‘The Unknown Masterpiece’) by Honoré de Balzac, with important additions by the director Jacques Rivette. The painter’s professional and personal interaction with his young model raises issues both about art and personal relationships.

In 1994 he played in The Emigrant / Al-mohager, a film by Youssef Chahine, the Egyptian film-maker. This biblical-based story, like his earlier foray in the GDR would seem to reflect his personal politics and principles; in this case working with a major film-maker whose films are rarely seen in the trans-Atlantic territories.

Piccoli continued appearing in films regularly up until 2015. Most years he appeared in several films, active until the age of ninety. Many of these, as was the case throughout his career, did not receive a British release. So I have only seen a small part of his output. But his best films were memorable, both for his screen presence and for the film being the product of really fine film-making. One would expect his work with the likes of Buñuel, Demy, Godard, Melville and Rivette to lead to new generations enjoying his skill and distinctive persona.

Searching for Ingmar Bergman (Germany-France 2018)

All three of us currently contributing to this blog have written about Ingmar Bergman’s films. I think Keith would be happy to accept the position of fan. But I and possibly Nick are more wary. I admire the skills of his filmmaking and I like some of the early films, but I struggle to enjoy the later films I’ve seen. Margarethe von Trotta, however, is a filmmaker I certainly admire and I’ve found all her films interesting. This is her documentary and therefore I approached it with some trepidation, knowing that she was a Bergman fan too.

Liv Ullman responds to Margarethe von Trotta’s questions

The film opens with von Trotta on the beach where Bergman shot The Seventh Seal (1957) as she takes us through her first experience of watching his films and then moves to Paris as she tells us how in 1960 she intended to study at the Sorbonne. She then admits that, after meeting some young French cinéphiles, she spent much of her time in cinemas catching up on la nouvelle vague and, through the young directors like Truffaut, discovering Bergman. We realise that this will be a ‘personal journey’ type of documentary and what follows sees the German director discussing Bergman with other directors, several of his female actors and then several members of his family as she visits Bergman’s home on Fårö, the small island in the Baltic where he spent most of his later life. As several reviewers have pointed out, this is a performative documentary – Margarethe von Trotta appears in the film herself and we see her interacting with her interviewees. What could have been a dull series of talking heads interspersed with clips from the films becomes something more personal and engaging. It’s good to see von Trotta talking with, for instance, Liv Ullman. Here are two successful female filmmakers, both of whom have been actors as well as directors, talking about a man who seemed to have the ability to find strong, beautiful and intelligent women (and skilled actors) to be the leads in his films – something eloquently confirmed by the Spanish director Carlos Saura. Bergman was also a man who married five times and seemingly left his wives after they gave birth, unable to engage in any way with his young children.

Margarethe von Trotta with two of Bergman’s sons, Daniel (right) and Ingmar (left)

We do meet Daniel Bergman, one of Bergman’s sons who had a difficult time in later life working with his father on Sunday’s Children (1992), a film written by Ingmar and directed by Daniel and drawing on memories of Ingmar’s father, the cleric Erik Bergman. Von Trotta also shows us a photograph of the whole Bergman clan, over three generations, taken when they travelled to Fårö. On this occasion several of the eight Bergman children met each other for the first time. The documentary does also begin to explore Ingmar’s deep psychological problems with his father and his own need to endlessly explore his childhood rather than engage with his children. This is just one example of how the documentary doesn’t ignore Bergman’s darker side but this isn’t enough to appease some of the film’s reviewers and several see von Trotta as creating a hagiography. She is a fan and she shows us Bergman’s list of films he selected for a publication related to the 1994 Göteborg Film Festival. It reveals that von Trotta’s own film The German Sisters (1981) is the only film in the list directed by a woman and the only one by a filmmaker who is still alive.

I’m not sure that it is fair to describe the film as a ‘hagiography’. Von Trotta does interview two of Bergman’s prominent contemporary disciples in the shape of the French directors Olivier Assayas and Mia Hansen-Løve. The latter made a visit to Fårö to make a (fiction) film which appears to be still to be released. However, another director of a ‘post-Bergman generation’, Ruben Östlund, points to the split in Swedish film culture that came about in the 1960s. Östlund explains that he was trained at the Göteborg film school where there has been more of an influence of the younger directors from the 1960s, led by Bo Widerberg, whereas in Stockholm there is still the sense that Bergman is the important figure. This view, which I confess I have long held, preferring Widerberg to Bergman, is confirmed by the writer, director and critic Stig Björkman who explains that in the 1960s Bergman began to feel threatened by the rise of a new generation. To be fair to Bergman though, he did include one of Widerberg’s films in that 1994 list.

A production still of Ruben Östlund being interviewed by Margarethe von Trotta

I think Margarethe von Trotta could have delved a little deeper into some of Bergman’s darker places and it’s unfortunate that she doesn’t/couldn’t interview some of Bergman’s male actors. Many of them are no longer with us. Perhaps my major disappointment with the film is that it fails to fulfil the blurb in the sense that although Margarethe von Trotta does probe a little about Bergman’s childhood, she doesn’t attempt to say anything about Bergman’s early work. He had made 16 feature films between 1946 and 1956 when he started on The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries. Apart from Summer with Monika (1953), which was a big influence on Truffaut and Godard, there is no mention of the early career in film – or theatre. It is the early films that I have enjoyed most. There is a clue as to why the early films are excluded. What does emerge from the documentary is that above all, Bergman saw himself as a writer. In those early films he was often constrained by working on somebody else’s original material. Von Trotta’s film does feel like a gathering of auteurs. It is an entertaining gathering and I was most impressed by the directors fluency in discussing the life and work of Bergman in French, German and English and at least I now know how to pronounce properly a range of names and titles in German and Swedish. In summary, this is a film that will interest Bergman’s fans and anyone interested in the history of European cinephilia. But if you don’t know Bergman that well it might not be the best place to start? On the other hand, it is a well-made documentary and Margarethe von Trotta is an engaging guide.