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Category: Reviews

The King of Marvin Gardens, 1972 – ★★★

Criterion Challenge 2022
Progress: 23/52
Prompt: Watch a film from the “America Lost and Found: The BBS Story” collection

Less than the sum of its parts. I decided to watch this one next because I just rewatched The Last Picture Show and Ellen Burstyn was so good in it. She’s great in this too, in a role that echoes her Lois Farrow. Nicholson’s great, Bruce Dern is great, and the weird surrealist angle on Atlantic City is great.

But, I dunno, it just didn’t cohere for me. I see where it was going at the end, with the pathos, but it didn’t totally earn what it wanted me to feel. Possibly I didn’t buy Dern and Nicholson as brothers, completely? Maybe Nicholson was just a little too detached for the sake of playing against his normal type?

Enjoyed it fine, even if I didn’t love it.

Love and Anarchy, 1973 – ★★★★½

Three phases.

First: “OK, neat, this is about radical leftism and anti-fascism contrasted with broad Italian sex farce, that’s kind of cool even if the marriage seems a little forced. And I dig this guy’s acting.”

Second: “Oh, wow, no, this is really authentically touching. This really is about love as much as it’s about anarchy, and Wertmüller really does care about both. This is quite good. And I dig this guy’s acting.”

Third: “Oh, fuck, no, this is now a brutal exploration of the compromises that anti-fascism may require from us, and an authentic query about the value of love when contrasted with the value of freedom. What’s one worth without the other? And Giancarlo Giannini’s acting is emotionally wrecking me. He’s so afraid.”

A Room in Town, 1982 – ★★★½

Not one of Demy’s masterpieces, but still quite good. It’s a little less graceful than The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and as a result it perhaps lives in that movie’s shadow — “ah, yes, the other Demy in which all the dialogue is sung.” Well worth taking on its own terms, though.

The thing is, it’s deeply political. The doomed romance doesn’t work without the tension of the strike and the class struggle. Demy isn’t subtle about this. The relationships are all driven by money, need for money, or (privileged) rejection of money. Also there’s a swastika on the doorway in the film’s final scene, visible right after the confrontation with the cops, and Demy always has too much control over his sets for that to be an accident. “All Cops Are Bastards” in French.

La Haine, 1995 – ★★★★½

Scathing. It took me a while to realize that Paris is the locus of whiteness in this one: white art gallery, white skinheads, white cops. The immigrant/minority protagonists come from the banlieues. The suburbs. So that’s a difference between France and the United States. But, you know, it’s the same fear of the different.

Pay attention to which one of the kids doesn’t get blamed for the riots, and which one (it’s the same one) who slips past trouble most of the time.

Everyone involved in this was young. The energy shows it. You can’t get away with borrowing as much as Kassovitz does without being brash about it. He fuses it together into his own creation, certainly.

Petite Maman, 2021 – ★★★★½

Gentle without being soppy. Simple enough not to need explanations. I don’t have this kind of relationship with my parents, for about a million reasons, and I don’t regret what was never going to be possible, but it’s moving to see it on screen.

And this is my first Céline Sciamma movie. Does she always make such perfect use of sound?

Purple Noon, 1960 – ★★★½

Criterion Challenge 2022
Progress: 22/52
Prompt: Watch a film on the Summer Travels list

My, Alain Delon is pretty. Also quite good even this young. Tom Ripley isn’t an easy character to play, with that mix of boldness and self-loathing, and Delon did well with it. I know many critics think he’s a completely aloof Ripley but I disagree: the early scene where he’s trying to romance the woman in the carriage right alongside Greenleaf is the giveaway. He’s desperate to emulate Greenleaf. It’s further demonstrated in his anger when Greenleaf corrects him on silverware. Delon’s Ripley hates being poor, hates being stupid. That’s why he jokes about being clever.

Marie Laforêt, for her part, has an easier role in Marge but I thought she inhabited it well. It must have been an experience to see them effectively debut together.

Also beautiful: the scenery. There was a point where I was convinced the little Italian town was a matte painting because it was too perfect and too still. Nope, that’s just a slice of sun-drenched coast. Really the best parts of this movie take place in the sunlight, including the lengthy tense sailing trip.

I thought the movie decayed a bit after that trip. It was still tense, but in a punctuated way. Ripley’s first real crime is where all the built up tension explodes and Clément never quite winds it up to the same degree again, although he does stay nicely chilling.

I am also inclined to agree with Patricia Highsmith about the ending — you gotta embrace the amorality. So that’s a fault. Considered separately from the book, though, it’s a fine psychological drama.

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, 1972 – ★★★★★

Yeah, okay, Fassbinder really did hit his stride once he decided he wanted to work with melodrama. The nihilism in The American Soldier is a lot of what I liked about it, but in this movie the same degree of nihilism serves a more pointed end and that lifts it to superior heights.

Also the acting is better. The movie wouldn’t work if any of the three leads weren’t capable of holding our attention. (Has there ever been a lead with as little dialogue as Marlene?)

The cinematography is as lush as anything Wong Kar-wai and Christopher Doyle ever did. Circling back to the actors and adding in the costume design: all of this brings the huge Baroque Midas and Bacchus down off the wall and extends it into the third dimension of Petra’s claustrophobic living space. Visually stunning in a way I didn’t expect after the black and white noir of The American Soldier.

I’m not entirely sure what to make of the fact that I’ve fallen for both Agnès Varda and Rainer Werner Fassbinder this year. One’s a supremely human empath who worked for her entire long lifetime, and one’s a monster who died young. I don’t think you can be as scathing as Fassbinder without really understanding humans, though — Petra’s pain isn’t defined by Fassbinder’s scorn, it’s created by his understanding. His empathy just led him to really different places.

The American Soldier, 1970 – ★★★★

Criterion Challenge 2022
Progress: 21/52
Prompt: Watch a film directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder

I dithered a lot on the right movie for this prompt but ultimately decided, yeah, let’s go for the lesser regarded gangster neo-noir over a Sirkian melodrama. Not that I don’t like Sirk a lot, but for a director I’m watching for the first time I’m more likely to enjoy the neo-noir.

Good call, past me! This bitterly nihilistic gangster movie is in my sweet spot. In places it lacks coherence — I think we had one too many meandering symbolic story — but the chilly black and white style carries the effort through. The closing shot is also a marvel; that display of grief unabashedly shows the passion which every single other person in the movie fights to conceal.

There were a couple of scenes where I thought the movie might be too misogynistic for me. Ricky, the titular American soldier, doesn’t treat women well. But particularly after the scene with the Romani, it became clear that it’s a general attitude towards perceived weakness. And he considered just about everyone he interacts with to be weak.

Man, that style, though. It’s noir, but it’s higher contrast noir. Fassbinder took the usual high contrast black and white and turns it up full volume, washing out details. The scenes of driving in the sunlight have almost too much glare.