January 29, 2021

Early in the film Beatrice, set in the Middle Ages, the titular heroine is gathering in a bird she has caught in a tree. As she prepares to bring the bird in as a pet, Beatrice’s hair becomes entangled in the bare branches, momentarily trapping her. As we shall see, she is very much a prisoner of her time, her gender, and her place.

Beatrice is the new film from French director Bertrand Tavernier. Tavernier likes to travel far and wide for his subjects; lately he’s examined French-settled Africa in the 1930s (Coup de Torchon), a delicate afternoon in the life of a painter (Sunday in the Country), and an American jazzman in exile (Round Midnight). For Beatrice Tavernier journeys to a desolate fiefdom of the late 14th century, where the Lord (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu) returns to his people after having suffered a defeat at the hands of the English.

He takes out his anguish on his son (Nils Tavernier, the director’s son), who is weak, and on his daughter Beatrice (Julie Delpy), who is pure. The son he humiliates; the daughter he rapes and takes as his incestuous bride. Intriguingly, and this is part of Tavernier’s gift, while Beatrice is the strong spiritual heart of the film, the father is not quite a devil. His hateful violence is part of a continuous act of self-destruction, since it is inevitable that someone will strike back at him sooner or later.

As is apparent, Beatrice is not an ode to the glorious age of chivalry. But, while he strips away legend, Tavernier is not merely a debunker. He indulges in his own kind of mythmaking, and Beatrice becomes a figure of classical proportions, a figure of goodness and light.

It’s the world she inhabits that is hard and dark. Tavernier and cinematographer Bruno de Keyzer create an uncompromisingly ordinary look for the Middle Ages. There are no shiny sunsets glimpsed o’er rolling hills; instead, the film is full of grays and browns and stone surfaces, to increase the sense of cold, earthy existence. As the lord seeks out his extermination, he says, “I don’t dread hell. We already dwell there.”

It may sound unlikely to insist that Tavernier’s bleak vision makes for a nice night at the movies, but Beatrice truly is rich in imagination, and watching it is a fascinating experience. This director finds ways of engaging us in the strangest places, and he doesn’t seem close to exhausting himself yet.

First published in The Herald, May 6, 1988

This is pretty early in Delpy’s career; she was not yet twenty. Donnadieu played the creepy kidnapper in the original version of The Vanishing. I interviewed Tavernier once and he lived up to his reputation as a cinephile’s cinephile. Lovely man, but you could also sense how he could be rigorous enough to make the films he made.

Cinema Paradiso

January 28, 2021

It was no surprise this week when the Oscar nominations for Best Foreign Language Film included Cinema Paradiso from Italy. This movie has been receiving raves from New York and Los Angeles critics since it opened several weeks ago.

With reason. It’s a crowd-pleaser, a real two-handkerchief affair that pays tribute to the process of growing up and to the power of movies in our lives. The Cinema Paradiso of the title is the only movie theater in a tiny Sicilian town in the late 1940s. The central figure is an 8-year-old boy named Salvatore, who’s called Toto by everyone in town (played by cute Salvatore Cascio).

Toto begins to realize that his soldier father is never going to come home from the war. He seeks solace in the movie theater, where the friendly projectionist (French actor Philippe Noiret) teaches him how to project dreams for the whole town to enjoy.

The film follows Toto through his adolescence (played by Marco Leonardi), a passionate, movie-inspired love affair, and his eventual departure from the town. Writer-director Giuseppe Tornatore, who grew up in such a small Sicilian town, really understands the magic of movies and their communal power.

There are many wonderful scenes. The local priest is also a film censor; he sits alone in the theater and watches each movie in advance, tinkling a communion bell when something as racy as a kiss turns up – the signal for the projectionist to cut that scene out. One night an overflow crowd in the town square is treated to a movie projected out a window and onto a building wall, bewildering the man who lives there.

The whole thing is warm and affectionate and just a bit broad, like so many Italian films. Tornatore’s heart is in the right place, although he doesn’t have the delicacy of expression that, say, Francois Truffaut would’ve brought to the subject. Still, the exquisite final scene will have anyone who loves movies reaching for a Kleenex or a sleeve, and probably longing for the days when a movie theater was paradise.

First published in The Herald, February 16, 1990

The movie won the Oscar, of course, and Tornatore certainly hit a nerve. I think what struck me the most was the idea in the final paragraph, written from the perspective of the multiplex 80s – the dream of having a movie theater that felt like a real place. I remember the rest as pretty schmaltzy. Miramax released this, and chopped down the running time to various lengths; not sure which one the press saw.

Camille Claudel

January 27, 2021

It is rare for a foreign-language performance to be nominated for an Academy Award.

France’s Isabelle Adjani has done it twice, first in 1975 for her epic performance in Francois Truffaut’s The Story of Adele H., in which she played the tragic daughter of Victor Hugo. A couple of weeks ago Adjani received her second nomination, for Camille Claudel. The film was also nominated for Best Foreign Language Film.

This one probably means more to her. Camille Claudel is a project that Adjani has nurtured for years; she selected her co-star, the ubiquitous Gerard Depardieu, and chose the director, Bruno Nuytten (one of France’s greatest cinematographers, and also the father of Adjani’s child).

And, of course, Adjani plays the leading role in this biographical film. Camille Claudel (born in 1864) was just a teenager when she met August Rodin (played by Depardieu), who was 24 years older than her and well on his way to becoming one of the great geniuses of sculpture. Camille was an uncommonly talented student, and eventually she became Rodin’s mistress.

This was a relationship as complex as the artists involved. For a while both flourished, but soon Camille felt smothered by Rodin’s greatness – and, the film suggests, Rodin may have felt his eminence threatened by Camille’s burgeoning talent. After they separated, Camille virtually locked herself alone in a studio and grew increasingly paranoid and unbalanced. In 1913, her mother and her brother, the poet Paul Claudel, had her committed to a mental institution, where she spent the remaining 30 years of her life.

The movie essentially covers the time from the meeting of the two artists to Camille’s internment. That is a morbid and grueling period, full of personal and artistic sufferings. There isn’t a lot of joy in this particular world, and Nuytten isn’t director enough to suggest why the creation of art makes such sorrows worth going through. Especially at a slow 2 ½ hours.

Obsessive love is a rich subject, and there are certainly moments in Camille Claudel that catch the heat: Rodin holding a candle over the face of a sleeping Camille, watching the shadows play, or Camille madly destroying a workshop full of her sculpture, including a bust of Rodin.

There’s passion behind the film, and a scary kind of intensity from Isabelle Adjani. Adjani has always seemed distant and slightly possessed, and it’s interesting that the story of Camille Claudel apparently means so much to her. The parallels with Claudel are apparent: Adjani, like the sculptress, doesn’t seem satisfied until she has pushed herself over the edge.

First published in The Herald, February 23, 1990

Jessica Tandy won the Best Actress Oscar that year, for Driving Miss Daisy; Cinema Paradiso took the Foreign-Language award. (The winner for Best Actor that year was Daniel Day-Lewis, who was involved with Adjani and later had a child with her.) Juliette Binoche played Claudel, admirably, in a 2013 film by Bruno Dumont.

Ginger and Fred

January 26, 2021

Did anybody else feel nervous during that big production number in the recent Academy Awards show where the grand ladies of the musical cinema were saluted? I was torn between appreciating the sentiment and worrying that one of the aging stars was going to stumble and fall while performing a dance step.

This same queasy feeling is used by Federico Fellini in his latest, Ginger and Fred, about a long-retired dance team who reunite for one number during a TV variety show. Felling plays with the fact that you don’t know whether to be warmed by the sentimental effort or concerned for the dancers’ brittle bones.

As it turns out, that’s one of the few tensions of any kind in Ginger and Fred, which is a largely toothless satire on the absurdities of television. (Isn’t Fellini about 20 years too late for that?)

Ginger and Fred were an Italian dance team who copied the style (and took the names) of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. They had a brief vogue years ago, but have been retired and haven’t seen each other for the better part of 30 years.

By the way, the film has nothing to do with the real Astaire and Rogers, and if anything, is a tribute to their kind of grace. The lawsuit recently brought by Ginger Rogers is completely off-base. (Astaire showed his usual class by refusing to participate in it.)

The fictional Ginger and Fred are brought back together by a weekly Italian TV extravaganza, squeezed in among the singing midgets, convicted criminals, and war heroes. Along the way, they begin to wonder exactly what they’re doing there. They also begin to wonder whether the love they once had for each other might be flickering again.

Two of Fellini’s most frequent collaborators play the dance team. Giulietta Masina (who, besides being the star of Nights of Cabiria and Juliet of the Spirits, is Fellini’s wife) is as winsome as ever as the sensible Ginger. Marcello Mastroianni, the director’s alter ego, plays the world-weary Fred. Surprisingly, Mastroianni seems barely engaged by the role.

Most of Fellini’s satire is obvious. It’s a little ironic: Fellini’s parade of freaks and eccentrics seemed daring and exotic in the late ’50s and early ’60s; now he sees the same exotics on the TV show. It’s as though the world has caught up with his imagination and surpassed it, and the maestro seems a bit put out by that.

The most successful sequence comes when Fred and Ginger are actually on the air. The power goes out just as they’re beginning their routine, so they sit on the stage in the dark and toy mischievously with the idea of running out. Then the dance itself recaptures their class, and their tattered nobility.

But it takes Fellini two unexceptional hours to get to this point. It’s worth wondering when, if ever, Fellini is going to make a movie that puts him back on the world stage.

It’s also worth wondering whether Fellini deserves his casually accepted eminence among the world’s filmmakers. With one important film – Amarcord – in the last 20 years, it may be time for critical re-assessment. Of course, I hope he proves me wrong with his next movie.

First published in The Herald, March 1986

A little hard there on the maestro at the end. These days I’m more comfortable with the idea that once an artist has done something great, he’s always great, and Fellini did great things, so his place is assured.


January 25, 2021

Films about childhood can be among the most rewarding experiences in movies. They seem to draw out the most personal kinds of recollections and feelings, and encourage filmmakers to indulge their most delicate methods.

Such a film is Chocolat, a memory piece by a first-time director, Claire Denis. Denis has been an assistant director on many good European films, and she has either learned a lot or simply been born with the gift. Chocolat radiates the assurance and self-confidence of a much more experienced director.

Perhaps that’s because the film is about a girl’s recollections of growing up in Africa, a setting that reflects Denis’ own background. Evidently the plot is not strictly autobiographical, but Denis has clearly applied her own deep connection with Africa to the story; it all seems very authentic.

After a prologue about a young woman returning to her childhood home in Cameroon, the movie skips back to the late 1950s. A little girl named France (Cecile Ducasse) lives with her parents on a colonial ranch on the hot plains of Cameroon. Her father (Francois Cluzet, of ‘Round Midnight) is a French bureaucrat who travels a lot, leaving her mother (Giulia Boschi) for long periods.

An important presence at the ranch is Protee (Isaach de Bankolé), a black servant of regal bearing. When the father is away, it’s clear that the sexual tension rises, with the mother looking longingly and curiously at Protee, who remains distant.

The movie focuses on a few months when a group of eccentrics, stranded by the breakdown of their plane, stays in the ranch house. The disruption of the usual family routine is enough to change the ranch life forever, leading to the eventual disappearance into the night of the mysterious Protee.

Watching Chocolat has a lulling effect; it’s full of languid African vistas and charged moments of unspoken feelings. It’s a fine, small film with the pacing and logic of a dream.

First published in The Herald, April 27, 1989

 A short and not especially distinguished review for the beginning of a long and storied career—at least I recognized Denis’ uncanny sense of assurance as a filmmaker. The film had quite a strong arthouse reception in the USA at the time, and I think it’s accurate to say that it remains one of Denis’ most accessible movies. This is near the beginning of Isaach de Bankolé’s cool career; the little girl, however, never made another movie. The movie opened at the Seven Gables theater, the funky flagship of a Seattle arthouse dynasty, later purchased by Landmark. It burned up in December. Not to be confused, needless to say, with the dopey Lasse Hallstrom/Juliette Binoche film from 2000.