A review of the Wellington Film Society’s screenings from March to April 2012
About a third of the way into this year’s Wellington Film Society schedule, and the selection almost seems themed, like some group art exhibition at the public gallery. The tone has been fairly dark, and the themes are frequently to do with consequences of your actions. There were three classic American noir films, where people getting what’s coming to them is often a feature. Nicolas Roeg’s bleak outback adventure Walkabout displays results of societal pressures of many kinds, and the two European films, The Skin I Live In and The Consequences of Love feature plenty of, well, consequences. In order of screening, here are the Film Society’s 2012 offerings from March and April, with my brief comments.
[Sans comments for two: I missed Wake In Fright, and I will review The Consequences of Love in a post of its own.]
The Skin I live In (La piel que habito) Spain 2011
Antonio Banderas plays a brilliant plastic surgeon haunted by his past. Many of his achievements are a result of the experiments he conducts on Vera (Elena Anaya), a mysterious, beautiful woman held captive in his mansion.
By many accounts, Pedro Almodovar’s previous film, Broken Embraces, was a disappointment. I haven’t seen it, but if that’s right, he’s well and truly back on track with this gorgeous, kitschy yet unsettling surgical horror film. Almodovar’s usual concerns are on display again here, and his melodramatic and slightly surreal style is both immersive and sometimes a tad daft. The explanation for these proceedings is suitably deranged, and delivered not as a ‘gotcha’ twist at the end, but revealed like the unfurling of a bandage through the story’s middle act, allowing the audience to dwell on the events and the madness.
Mildred Pierce USA 1945
Mildred Pierce (Joan Crawford, in an excellent “comeback” performance) runs from a beach-front house after shots are fired and her estranged husband is murdered. Flashback shows how Mildred came to be in this position, after leaving her previous cheating husband and trying to raise her daughters on her own. (Based on the novel by James Cain.)
Underrated film noir that stands up to contemporary viewing better than the next two examples. While it has an essentially conservative outlook, the social anxieties of the time are nicely laid bare. It features an effectively contemptuous performance from Ann Blyth as Veda – one of the most grating spoiled brats ever put to the screen.
Wake In Fright Australia 1971
I didn’t see this one, but it sounds pretty good.
The Postman Always Rings Twice USA 1946
A drifter (John Garfield) arrives at diner owned by a genial, older man and his beautiful wife (Lana Turner). They fall in love and together they plot the murder of the husband.
Another good film noir based on a James M. Cain novel, although this one doesn’t hold up as well to modern viewing as Mildred Pierce. (It’s still better than the 1981 remake.) There’s a vulnerability to both leads, and a precariousness to their criminal plotting, that lends the movie an odd kind of authenticity. Despite that, there are also a few ‘Why did they do that? Why don’t they just do this?’ moments. It features good performances all round, especially from Turner and Hume Cronyn, whose devious defence lawyer may be my favourite part of the movie. There’s a good, thorough commentary from Nick Davis here.
The Asphalt Jungle USA 1950
A criminal genius gets out of prison and plans one last heist. He gathers together the necessary team (safe cracker, tough guy, money man, driver), and everything goes according to plan. Except, not quite.
A very influential, archetypal crime caper movie, The Asphalt Jungle is probably a must watch for cineasts. So I’m glad that they played it, although it did have a slight sensation of being a chore. It’s got an effective atmosphere, and the untangling of the heist is nicely understated. It’s once again conservative in outlook, but engenders a degree of sympathy with the characters. However, it seems at times even more preachy than the other noirs shown so far. Relatedly, perhaps, it feels the most dated.
Walkabout Australia 1971
After their father has a breakdown, a teenage girl and her younger brother are left stranded in the Australian outback. They eventually meet and receive assistance from an aboriginal boy on his ‘walkabout’ (a rite of passage where he spends some time separated from his tribe).
Walkabout is a fascinating, often misunderstood, slightly naive coming of age adventure. Jenny Agutter (most recently seen as a SHIELD council member in The Avengers) gives a strong performance, nicely balancing stoicism and vulnerability. The film seems to suggest mostly a strong element of cultural incommensurability, but also a hint of shared humanity, or at least parallels in, for example, matters confronting those “coming of age”.
This nuanced portrayal is to its credit, but it juggles its themes clumsily at times, coming across a bit ANTH 101. For example, in the first meeting between Agutter’s character and the aborigine (David Gulpilil) sees her trying thick-headedly to ask for water: “Water! ... You must understand ‘water’!” she repeats to the uncomprehending aborigine. Then her brother mimes a drinking action and gets the point across. Agutter’s character wasn’t portrayed as ignorant or dim-witted in most of the film, but we’re supposed to believe that she thinks he simply must understand “water”, and it wouldn’t occur to her to mime the act of drinking.
Roger Ebert says the film is about “The mystery of communication”, and that’s true to a point. But ham-fisted scenes like this one make it almost feel didactic, rather than mysterious. And some of the stylistic editing just seems pretentious.
But mostly I agree with Ebert. Walkabout is mostly a nuanced film about culture and communication. Like The Consequences of Love, it’s able to say a lot without having characters that speak a lot. Walkabout is for the most part poetic, subtle, visually strong, and not a simplistic “noble savage good; modern life hollow” tale that some think.
The Consequences of Love (Le conseguenze dell'amore) Italy 2004
Titta lives in a Hotel in Lugano, Switzerland. He’s been there almost ten years, spending his days drinking alone, occasionally playing cards, and waiting for a mysterious delivery, which in turn triggers a dash to the bank. Ten years of living an inscrutable life, one day he decides to offer a barmaid a smile.
This will get its own post soon. In the meantime, watch the beginning, with music by Lali Puna.