Foolish Wives

Erich von Stroheim is considered to be the silent era’s most unlucky auteur. Constantly having his films taken from him by people who do not trust his artistic direction, the films we do get to see of his are famously manipulated, mistreated, and cut without permission from him. Foolish Wives, the third feature he directed was went so dramatically over budget that Universal put up a sign in Hollywood showing how much the film was costing day by day until the amount reached over a million dollars hoping desperately to generate publicity and buzz around it. When von Stroheim submitted a cut that was over six hours long, the producers took the print and cut it down to two and half then released it without his permission. Those hours that were cut are forever gone and what remains is a tonally uneven, but still interesting film.

von Stroheim plays a Russian “aristocrat” who makes a living by counterfeiting money and taking advantage of rich wives in Monte Carlo. He encounters an American wife who he seduces through violence and danger. Her husband understands what is at stake and tries to save his wife ending in the death of von Stroheim’s character. von Stroheim exudes sinisterness that is appealing as well as appalling. Within a few shots of the film, you understand that his “cereal” is caviar and his “milk” is ox blood (which by the way is super gross… who eats and drinks that?) and that he is devilishly charming. He seduces the counterfeiter’s daughter with a few looks and gestures. He promises the maid that he will marry her if only he could have all the money she ever saved. Everywhere he manipulates and encourages people into trusting him although he is quite frankly really scary looking with his monocle, his cocked military hat and his white military uniform. I guess that is the whole point.

Just like Queen Kelly, this film has the potential to be a masterpiece if only people didn’t interfere with the obvious genius behind Erich von Stroheim. Of course the people behind the film are not solely to blame, after all he insisted on building a complete replica of Monte Carlo, using real champagne and caviar when they could use cheaper food that looks the exact same on-screen, and ordering couture dresses for the women and silk undergarments for the men in order to make them feel upper class. But I think if his sinisterness was sit on and let mature on-screen, he would have been an iconic villain on par with other dark but all too real villains of the film noir era. It is a pity… excuse me now while I mourn this masterpiece in quiet reflections.

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Out of the Past

Robert Mitchum is an actor that I have not really explored. I have yet to watch Night of the Hunter (a gem stuck somewhere in the middle of my Netflix queue) or really dive into his western work and I don’t think I have seen him in anything else other than the film I am talking about. Known for his nonchalance and his angular figure, he is perfect actor for film noir and looking at his list of films he has made quite a few. I stumbled onto this film after reading a line from the film in a quote contest. (it was film noir themed!) I’m glad I did.

While not my favorite film noir, this film seems to hit all of the noirish elements with the bang of a gong. Double crossing, femme fatales, backwards storytelling, deep shadows, and a detective, I loved going on the ride and losing myself in Robert Mitchum’s performance as a man trying to run away from his past. In his past, he was a two-bit detective who got an assignment to find a lost dame in Mexico from a very powerful bookie. He finds this dame and abandons the mission in order to be with her. They run and run until they get caught. In the middle of the catch, the dame who claims to be sweeter than she is kills a man and he leaves to start a new life as some else and she goes back to her bookie. Found in a small town working a gas station, he is thrown back into the underworld he so desperately wants to forget. I told you it was a film noir.

Robert Mitchum is hot. He commands every scene that he is with his deary voice and puppy dog eyes. He seduces his dame with just one turn of the phrase, but I do not judge because I would have fallen for it too. He gives off this air of indifference, but he has strong morals that bubble up every once in a while. He burns for solitude, for not killing in order to get what he needs or doing anything dishonestly. But those dames they always be screwing things up for the hard working men. Boy does this dame screw things up for him. She claims to not have stolen her bookie boyfriend’s forty grand but just shot him to escape his influence unharmed. He falls for it. She claims that he does not love her bookie boyfriend and in fact loves him instead, but all she wants is him to not follow her anymore. She wants to cover up all the murders she commits and get everything out of every man she comes into contact with, but she just cannot win no matter how smoldering she is. Every time Robert’s character catches her, she seems to slip through until the fatal ending. The woman who played this awful dame, Jane Greer, didn’t have much of a career and it is a shame. She could have been more femme fatales.

There is one major plot point and character I had trouble with, however. The character was the bookie, played by Kirk Douglas and the plot point would be him believing anything that Jane Greer would say. He is supposed to be this savvy business man who is willing to pay money and pull cons in order to get what he wants. He lost this woman, forty grand (a sum that had more significance in the forties than today), and his health when she left and yet he believes her when she tells lies about Robert’s character and tells him someone is dead when she doesn’t know if he is or not. Kirk goes through the film like a limp noodle when he is supposed to be just  as threatening as Jane’s character to Robert. Hell Kirk’s character tried to kill, frame, and steal from Robert’s character several times throughout the film and yet he does nothing but sit there and smile in his polished suit. It is hard to imagine him to go on to be in such iconic films and be a major player in Hollywood.

For the most part I really liked this film. I enjoyed the interactions with the deaf boy and the dichotomy between the good girl in the small town and the evil woman in the big city. It does have its problems and the progression from point A to C is a little unneeded convoluted. I would watch this film again for Robert’s performance alone.

The Wild Child

In the last installment of me watching Truffaut films and then commenting on them, I spit vitriol over Mississippi Mermaid. The obvious bad film in the bunch, I seized upon it with a sinister smile on my face. At the time of the writing I had not seen his next film yet (sometimes I watch films in batches and I see several films at a time but the reviews do not come out for weeks afterward) and I was hoping against hope that his next film will redeem him in my eyes. He was on a progression that would assume this film to be worst than the one before it and I was about to give up on him and his potential. I am happy to report that he broke this progression with this picture of an ethnographic study made in late eighteen hundreds.

About a child who was found in the wild (as is evident by the title), he appears to be raised without any parents at all and lacked even the basic motor skills involved in being a person raised by society. He was more an animal that only cared about surviving and getting his next meal than the meaning of life. He seemed unable to hear and communicate in any intelligible way. At first he was used merely as an object of curiosity for the upper classes, abused and mistreated by his doctors. Then a man decided to take him away from the eye of the public and see if he could make this child’s life better by giving him the tools to speak and learn. He experimented with him trying out different techniques that he was researching at the time. But he didn’t just treat him as a scientific study, but as his child. He gave him love and a sense of belonging maybe not in the outside world but at least in his house. This was all based on one of the most revolutionary studies about deafness ever produced and the techniques that this man discovered by working with this child are still used today in order to help young deaf children develop their ability to learn.

But why did this story end up being so well told by Truffaut? On the surface it does not seem to be anything that Truffaut would be interested in. There are no hints of Hitchcockian suspense, Renoir’s commentary on the upper classes (except maybe at the beginning, but that is underplayed) or any overt references to film as a medium all of which we have seen from him in the past. It is also the first film that he appears in as a character. In fact he is  one of the main characters, the doctor, observing this child who cannot speak or communicate in any intelligible way. Another aspect on why this film should not have worked is that is based on a very dry diary from the doctor’s point of view. Those things usually do not make for great source material because it is hard to inject any way to make the story engaging. Also it features a main character who cannot speak or express emotion but is played by a child who can do all of these things. Child actors are famous for not being very good at achieving out of the ordinary children. Just think of all those genius children shows and films. All of the child actors are super lame because they are not geniuses. But somehow all of these aspects do not deter from the film but make it refreshing and unique.

I think the reason behind why the film is so good is that Truffaut believed in the film. It was not a mere exercise for him like Mississippi Mermaid may have been but a story that took time to research, develop, and make his own. It is also because the film centers around a child. Truffaut works so well with children that it comes at no surprise that he got such a great performance out of the actor who played the wild child. In fact I kind of wish he would have used this actor as he grew up like he did with Jean-Pierre Leaud, he could have been a fantastic actor. But sadly he did not and the actor only had one other credit besides the Wild Child. Also Truffaut was such a good actor. I don’t think that he could probably express much range, but being an inquisitive doctor determined to make this child’s life better is jus tin his wheel house.

Truffaut is at his best when he makes small films detailing an event at a certain emotional distance. He is a storyteller. Sometimes a bad storyteller, but most of the time an ingenious one that I can’t help but love. I am back in your throws Truffaut. Don’t mess it up.

Intolerance

If you take a class in college about film history, film techniques, representations of African-Americans in culture or a race relations course, than you have probably heard of D.W. Griffith. He made one of the most blatantly racist films of all time, Birth of a Nation, that nonetheless had an incredible impact on film technology and evolution. Over three hours in length (itself a unique thing in 1915), the film details the rise of the KKK after the Civil War and features the world’s first tracking shot, close-ups, and several other techniques that are still used today. The film also represents the birth of modern American cinema. The film is not just essential viewing for the purely technical aspects but also for the insane controversy it generated. Banned in several cities after being deemed as racist and propaganda for the Ku Klux Klan, it helped resurrect the long dead KKK, inspired many black people to make films in response and branded Griffith as a racist for the rest of his life. He hated this label and decided to direct a film in response to these accusations. That film is just as grand as Birth of the Nation and features many stories that shows how damaging intolerance to other people’s ideas and life can be to the people involved. The film entitled quite succinctly as Intolerance did not do near as well as his previous film and did not prove anything about his non racist tendencies (in fact he avoided portraying anyone of a different color other than white) but also tacked on the label of sexist. So overtly sexist that it kind of angers me to think of this film.

The several stories include a modern story (this is the one that angers me the most I think) involving a young woman whose father is laid off from a plant. He then tries to make money in several other ways, but dies without realizing any success. A co-worker of his in the plant then courts this girl and makes an honest woman out of her. However in desperation he had joined a gang and when trying to get out they planted a gun on him and he is sent to jail for several years. In this time, the young girl has a baby and is practically destitute, not able to take care of her child and she is amazingly young. This group of older women who as the film details are not pretty enough to have a husband to occupy their time and have too much money form a group that tries to reform prostitutes and take women’s babies away from them if they are deemed unfit to be a mother. This is where I get angry. Griffith posits in this particular story that if we didn’t have these awful women meddling in things they shouldn’t be meddling and instead had children and husbands of their own than nothing bad would have ever happened to this young woman. Never mind the fact she can’t feed her baby, take care of it in any way, that her husband is in jail, and that she is spectaturily young (the fact that many women had babies in their teens and that was acceptable back then and almost expected still surprises me to this day) doesn’t mean anything other than she is a saint. I know that this is a film blog and I should be reviewing the film, but I have to say one thing and that is there were real groups like the one portrayed here that existed at the time and they in fact were extremely helpful to women that were in the same situation that this woman was, giving them temporary housing, food assistance and advice on how to care for a child. They also didn’t just jail prostitutes like it suggest in the film or disapprove of alcohol because they didn’t want men to have any fun, but they tried to rehabilitate prostitutes that came to them and disapproved of alcohol as being one of the main  indicators of domestic violence at the time. It pisses me off that men portray organizations that helped women believe in themselves and sustain themselves as the most evil organizations ever.

Now to get back to the story. There are other stories that happened at different points of history. One is about Babylon and the end of its empire, another being about Jesus, and the last being about the French Catholics’ intolerance of Calvinism. Now while some of these stories clearly show and imply intolerance of one’s views the one story that doesn’t overtly involve intolerance is the one that is most highlighted. That would be the end of the Babylonian empire. It is mostly just about war which may be an instrument of intolerance, but in this case is just used as an instrument of conquering land and riches. It is irrelevant to the themes and ideas Griffith wants to make obvious. It was no surprise to me when I read after watching the film that he spent the most money on this set. In fact if he would have just stripped everything else way from the film including the modern story, the french and jesus story and the cradle that kept rocking and just had this story, my review would be different. I rather enjoyed this era. He played to his strengths with this story, something that he didn’t do in the other ones

There are specific scenes, shots and moments in the film that I liked quite a bit, but I still don’t think that I can recommend this film except if you are interested in the historical significance of D.W. Griffith. Then you probably would have watched this film without reading this. I wish I could go back to when Griffith was alive, slap him in the face and call him one of the most racist, sexist men of all time. If you don’t believe me watch Birth, this film and then Broken Blossoms and then come back to me and try to defend him. You will find that you cannot.

In The Mood For Love

For some reason lately I have not really been into Asian films. I go through these stages where I become obsessive about one film movement, one film region or one film decade and just gouge myself on these films until I need to move onto to something else for both my and my boyfriend’s sanity. This happened to me with Asian films a couple of years ago. I didn’t care from what decade, what specific country, or what genre it came from, I had to watch it. Along the way I discovered some stinkers and some masterpieces. I also developed a long-term relationship with some fantastic directors. One of those directors is Wong Kar-Wai and his masterpiece is undoubtedly In the Mood for Love.

This is one in a handful of others that sparked my obsession and love for film. I remember watching it in my parents’ moldy basement late night glued to the screen. I had recently discovered that film can be and is art (a revelation that I knew intellectually but did not know emotionally if you understand where I am coming from) and I was gorging myself on every foreign, old (with the help of TCM… i love that channel!), and independent film I can get my hands on. However I paused when I found this film. I found what I was looking for: an emotional masterpiece about the complexities of love. A truly unique exploration of what I had yet to feel. I feel embarrassed to tell you this but I cried when I found this film, not just because of the story but because I found a treasure chest full of awesome. At the time I could not put into words why I had cried, why I felt the need to watch this film over and over again, or why I needed to find out everything that went on in the making of the film and how every shot was achieved. I just knew that I loved it.

Before I get too far ahead of myself, let me just tell you about the plot of the film. It is about a man and a woman in post war Beijing. They live near each other in the same apartment building and they are each married to someone else. However their spouses seem to never be there with them. They are stuck in this lonesome city all alone. The woman, played wonderfully by Maggie Cheung, and the man, played awesomely by Tony Leung, discover that their spouses are having an affair with each other. They are both devastated, but at the same time pulled together by this revelation. Leung coaches Maggie’s character to confront her husband but she cannot control herself and breaks down in his arms. They both long to be with each other but can’t quite pull it off. They don’t want to be like their spouses. Through a series of missed opportunities they finally leave and go their separate ways never to see each other again. This synopsis does no justice to the emotions and subtext of the film.

The subtlety of the film is breathtaking. With just a look, a gesture, a lonesome cigarette smoke, the film tells so much about these two characters. You barely see their spouses, just hints of his wife’s hair and her husband’s suit. The film does not care about the spouses, it is merely a mcguffin to pull these two characters together in their grief. The looping soundtrack adds focus to the emotions conveyed by the actions of the characters. I love Wong Kar-Wai’s use of Nat King Cole, old Asian standards and the score. The costumes, especially Maggie Cheung’s dresses are spot on. It is just such a beautiful film to look at and experience.

Many people may disagree with me when I say that this is a masterpiece, but I stick by that statement. I hope this film becomes an essential part of film history not just for the films and television that it inspired but because it was such a great demonstration of conveying of love in subtle ways. There are no grand speeches, no obvious images, no steamy sex scenes. There is just two people walking past each other on their way to get rice.

Mississippi Mermaid

Truffaut borrows a lot from different directors. A product of his years watching every film that he can see, writing massive amounts of reviews, treatises and interviews of famous directors, he has absorbed and regurgitated these influences on the screen. He is not the only director that is guilty of this and it actually adds to his wonderful ability to create original stories. But sometimes his influences get in the way of him creating something that is truly him and fleshed out. That is what I think happened with Mississippi Mermaid.

About a man who gets a mail order bride sent to him only to betrayed by her and robbed, he then goes on a journey of healing and obsession that results in finding the woman again and  running away with her to various places. The different locales, the theme of obsession, and the non-linear storyline all remind me vividly of films like Vertigo and South by Southwest among other Hitchcock films. But there is a reason why Vertigo or South by Southwest stands out as one of the greats and this film is largely forgotten. The characters played by Jimmy Stewart or Cary Grant are interesting. They are whole characters that are flawed, obsessed, have interesting quirks and the story line that they thrust upon are based solely on their neuroses. Here Jean Paul Belmondo’s character, Louis Mahe, is flawless except that he loves a woman who is bad for him and therefore he is incredibly boring. Oh and there are no redeeming qualities to the woman he fell in love with. Her only strong attribute or character quirk is that she is obsessed by money. How more obvious can you get with a maneating woman stereotype? It makes me want to throw the DVD out the window when the characters are as flat as they are in this film.

what makes me even more angry is that there is an amazing amount of potential in this film. Truffaut had an insane budget for the film and he shot in such exotic locations as a French dominated island in Africa called Reunion Island (I thought Truffaut was making up the history and the and the name of the island in order to make the film more compelling, but I googled it and it does actually exist and Wikipedia says the back story of the island that appears in the film is true.), Switzerland, and the South of France. He also had two of the best actors working at that time, Jean Paul Belmondo and Catherine Deneuve. Each location falls in its resplendent and each actor just sort of lies there motionless waiting for someone to pull the strings so they can move each limb. I HATED Catherine Deneuve in this film and that is not an emotion I usually have towards an actress or actor, especially an actress that I usually like in the films she is in. She delivers her lines in such a monotone that I can actually hear the money she is counting for taking this role. Ugh. It makes me angry just thinking of her performance.

There are a couple of things that I wished Truffaut would have done in order to improve the film. Instead of the couple saying that they love each other they probably should have shown the affection they said they had. Instead of jumping everywhere in the French dominated world, he should have stayed in Reunion Island. I feel that the island’s possibilities were not explored to their full potential and forcing Deneuve’s character to stay on the island after betraying this rich man for another man would have created tension that would have felt more earned. One final change I would have told Truffaut would have been to beef up the character of Belmondo’s financial advisor. He had a quirk that was not explored enough, in fact Belmondo’s character himself sort of writes it off halfway through the film. But it was a quirk that would have supplied better stretches of dialogue for the script. Instead of giving real advice to Belmondo’s character, he would rattle off facts about the island. It was a unique idea that was way under explored. All of these changes would have made it a different film, but I think that is what it needs to be.

I feel bad for trashing this film so thoroughly, but there is really nothing redeeming about it except for the amazing cinematography. My hopes for Truffaut’s later career are so severely dashed that he can only go up from here. I really hope I like Wild Child…

Anna Karenina (1948 Version)

There are certain actress and actors plagued by their big breaks. Judy Garland was forever forced to sing Over The Rainbow for the rest of her life… James Dean was thought of solely as a bad boy, not a classically trained actor….People become known for one role that made them famous and they struggle to get out and break through to show their versatility. For Vivien Leigh the role was Scarlett O’Hara, a headstrong Southern woman who was entangled in one of the most famous love tragedies ever. Although British by ancestry and a very strong versatile stage actress, she was forever type cast as a headstrong woman who will never be rewarded with love at least in its purest sense. Because of this she rarely wanted to work in films (of course it was not the only reason, merely one reason in a pile full of mental illness, jealousy, and self-consciousness) and when she did, her experience was usually not the greatest. This was the case of Anna Karenina (I put the 1948 version in order for people not to confuse with the earlier version made with Greta Garbo) which ended up being a financial failure and was wrought with breakdowns from Vivien and other actors in the film. These facts do not show on the screen. But not a whole lot does.

Anna Karenina was originally a very long and dense novel by Leo Tolstoy. It is only on the surface about Anna’s affair with Count Vronsky. But the story has more layers and characters than most films are willing to commit to which is why the films can feel random at times for people who have not read the book. For instance, why is there a focus (admittedly only for a few scenes) on this younger woman being slighted by Count Vronsky for Anna only to marry a much older man and declare she loves him? In the novel that much older man served as the moral compass and the stand in for Tolstoy himself. But in this film this subplot without any commentary on the degredation of Russian society or his inability to commit to the idea of Kitty (the younger woman and the niece to Anna) of actually loving him that mirrors Anna’s inability to commit to Count Vronsky staying with her forever, he and his subplot seems unnecessary. You cannot cut the meat of a character and expect him to still have the same life on screen. It is impossible. Also when you place Anna and her affair with Count Vronsky in the center of the story instead of this older man character, the characters don’t hold up… especially Count Vronsky. Admittedly Count Vronsky is nothing more than a macguffin in the book for Anna to get her to finally live out her fantasy of an affair and for her husband to take away all of her social status, but at least he has some emotions and doubts about Anna. In the film he mostly a wet blanket for Vivien to act circles around. Holy crap was that actor miscast. He just faded into the background only to pop up every once in awhile to show off his mustache.

Due to the stripping of the story, the only interesting scenes that remain are between Anna and her husband. Ralph Richardson is easily becoming one of my favorite character actors from the studio era. He can play the severe and austere father/husband part so well that there has got to be some part of him in real life that is full of austerity. (By the way I praised him in my review of The Heiress, if you want to read that review) He can take the act of leaving a room to mean so much that it causes irrepreable damage to the actress who is left on her own. I wish that the whole film was only Anna and her husband talking about things. I think it would have a better effect on me than all of the scenes outside of their house did in the real film. In fact that might be a good way to adapt the novel is to just have Anna and her husband talk about the affair and how it is destroying him professionally when he really means personally. Hmm… (that would be too much work for me but if anyone would like to try, I would read it and probably watch it if it gets that far)

This film is bloated and unnecessary for the most part. The director seemed to care more for what Vivien was wearing and how to stage the grand scenes in the ballroom and in Venice than to actually notice that one of his actors sucked hard and most of the other characters didn’t have anything to do with the version of the story he was telling. But if you want to watch Vivien and Ralph act together than I would suggest fast forwarding to their parts.

Stolen Kisses

Antoine Doinel is a character that is essential to Truffaut’s filmography. He is the subject of his first feature film as a child and he returns to him again and again throughout his career. In fact if Truffaut himself hadn’t died at such a young age, he probably would have shown Doinel’s death. Doinel is a misfit going through life at an odd angle. He has no real ambition, he loves to fiercely, and his ability to “do the right thing” is limited. Despite all of these things, you can’t help but love him and his buffoon nature.

Stolen Kisses picks up the Doinel character when he is in his early twenties. He has just gotten expelled from the Army and returns to a past love but more importantly to the love’s parents. Always searching for the parents he loses, he seems to always bonds just as hard with the parents of his girlfriends as with the girlfriend herself. He goes through many different occupations, most notably as a private detective, before being fired from each one for being insufficient in the position. However it never really seems to phase him which I find slightly mind-boggling being an underemployed twenty something. I wish I could take my many jobs in stride, but I cannot. He seems to be able to because he has a obession with women more than he has with the occupations he has. In fact the reason he gets fired from the private detective agency is because he is caught having an affair with the wife of a client. These scenes between the wife, played by the wonderful Delphine Seyrig, are the best scenes in the film. While at tea with her, he mistakenly calls her “sir” and flees like a bad child. Then the wife visits him in his apartment and declares that she knows what he wants and she wants the same thing. Of course after that they get down to do the nasty.

Many people declare this film to be too light considering the time frame in which it was made. This film premiered within weeks of the famous Cinematheque protests that are a part of French film history. Rocked by the replacement of Henri Langlois, tons of famous directors and patrons of Cinematheque came out to protest. This coincided with the student demonstrations in France and the almost toppling of the presidency by pure will. But on the surface, with the exception of the first shot of the Cinematheque barred, this film seems to not really focus on those revolutionary times although it is not a period piece. Godard responded to these times very directly. Why couldn’t Truffaut?

The answer is that I think he did. He made the demonstrations a normal part of life. Several times in causal conversation protests and demonstrations are brought up. In fact his main love interest in the film participates quite reverently in these protests although Doinel tries to brush them off. This normalization is a reflection on Truffaut’s staunch ideals and want to have it be a part of everyday conversation.

The misadventures of Doinel are fascinating. His clear ineptitude at being able to follow someone, his faces he makes while in uncomfortable situations, and his violent feelings towards the women in his life all make Doinel a great character. I can’t wait to watch the other entries in this series.

A Man Escaped

It is hard for me to admit, but I do not like Robert Bresson. I hated his film Pickpocket with such a passion that I actually went on one of those message boards after I watched it and ranted about how this film could be considered important (That by the way is something I NEVER do… I still hate myself for taking such a strong stance on the film in such a capacity). I thought the film was so slow, so painful, so full of pretension that I wanted to reach in the film and slap the character in the face. It made me resist his films for some time… that is until while bored at work, I read an article on a retrospective of Bresson films that was touring the country. Literally every time before when that director or any of his films were mentioned, I didn’t listen to the podcast, read the article, engage in the conversation, or pay any attention to it at all. However boredom at work makes you do strange things (including spending hours on youtube trying to figure out how to do hula hoop tricks only to remember that you don’t have a hula hoop) and therefore I paid attention to Bresson again and I read a synopsis of a film that actually intrigued me. It was this film and I found it for free on Hulu so I decided to give it a try. I will now commence in putting a foot in my mouth…

A Man Escaped is about a man stuck in a WWII POW camp. He cannot help but think of freedom and his hours are occupied with coming up with a scheme to escape this awful imprisonment. He is stoic and exacting because he has to be. He is a like and unlike his fellow prisoners. They all think of escaping, they all worry about their fates, and they all want some human connection. However it is only Fontaine that is successful in escaping, developing connections to the fellow prisoners, and is able to lead a life worth living even if they are stuck in an awful cell for most of the day.

I want to be clear that this film is just as dry as Pickpocket. Fontaine expresses nothing in his face, the voiceover that is ever-present only gives the slight motivations behind Fontaine’s actions, and the film is very long going. But the tension is always high. He has to be extremely quiet when he is etching out the panels from the door, he can only make rope from articles that would not look suspicious of him to be ripping up, his footsteps are softer than a mouse, and he gets discouraged almost daily by the actions of his fellow prisoners or by the guards. These actions and the constant threat makes the film exhilarating.

I loved the film because it felt so real. So many other films about imprisonment whether it be cast against WWII or any other war have a feeling of adventure and martyrdom that is forced and fake. Maybe because it was based on a true story, the author and prisoner acted as technical advisor in the film, they used all of the instruments he used to escape, and Bresson himself was a POW during WWII, the film feels rooted in authenticity. I find this authenticity refreshing. There is nothing glossy, overtly moral, or anything else that shows up in this film that are present in other films (For example Rescue Dawn and Schindler’s List take a tragic thing and make it into a gloss fest full of heavy-handed morals and over the top performances) that deal with this sort of subject matter. Fontaine’s constant preoccupation with freedom is just as damning as the old man’s loss of will to live, the priest constant need for religion, and the young kid’s need to drink. There is nothing heroic in his need to be free even when he is successful. He could have just as easily been unsuccessful and have damned everyone on his block. I think that any director wanting to make a POW film would make a better one if they see this film.

Stella Maris

It is hard to think that I have had this weekly column on silents for some months now and have barely mentioned Mary Pickford. Considered to be one of the first super stars, Mary Pickford was a national phenomenon. Like other mega stars of the silent era, she was known for playing one type of role: the adorable young girl forced into unfortunate circumstances, but providing comedy along the way. These roles made her insanely rich, but also instilled a fierce independence in her. She wanted to known as an actress and not just as a cultural phenomenon, so she tested her audience by taking on new challenges that showcased her range. Stella Maris is a great example of a challenge she excelled at. In Stella Maris she plays two girls, one a sheltered naive cripple, and the other a down and out orphan who gets beaten up by her new “mother.”

Unity, the orphan, is the highlight of the film. Scrappy, unpolished, and unloved, Unity goes through horrible events in her life without the slightest want of anything different. She is neglected, forced to do maid work, beaten, and eventually gives up her life in order to save her unrequited love, but she still smiles, jokes and has a good time on-screen. She is endearing in every way. The same can also be said about Stella Maris for different reasons.

Stella is a beautiful young girl in love with a striking young man. She loves flowers, young children, animals and pretending. Her parents refuse to tell her anything about the real world or the truth behind the many visits from the striking young man. However a doctor finds a cure to her sickness, and she is made to walk again and realize that the young man does not live in a castle, is in fact married to an alcoholic drug addict who beat her adopted daughter, Unity. This realization crushes her but only momentarily. Finding out things are exactly the way she dreamed them to be does not ruin her goodness and her want to be kind to everyone including Unity.

What makes this film unique is how complete and distinct Mary made both of these characters. Unity has a simple hairstyle, coarse demeanor, a flat-footed walk, and an inability to express full thoughts and feelings. Stella on the other hand looks like the supreme example of what a woman should be and act like. Her language is flowery, her walk (when she is finally able to) is light, and her expressions are one of ultimate beauty. I could point to several scenes in the film where the contrast is most evident in the demeanor of the characters but if you haven’t seen the film than I would never be able to express how truly different they are. There is a uniqueness to Mary Pickford’s ability to express her feelings that I think a lot of little girl wonders (like the Gish sisters for instance) sorely lack. She is a wonder to watch, and I hope to review some more of her films soon.