Thursday, August 15, 2013

#678: La Notte

(Michelangelo Antonioni, 1961)

I watched La Notte years ago while struggling to come to terms with Antonioni - at the time, I was obsessed with Blow-Up, but found L'Avventura puzzling and dull - but I remember little of it and I actually think I probably fell asleep halfway through. This doesn't really matter, but I mention it because I probably wouldn't have liked the film anyway as I was certainly too young to understand the sadness and longing in the film. Made just a year after Antonioni's masterpiece, La Notte maintains the same tone and modernist perspective, but in every other way feels like it was made by an artist twenty years older. It's Autumn to L'Avventura's Summer.

La Notte is more actor-driven than its better-known older sibling. This is partially because the film is more specific to its characters, but its mainly due to the presence of three iconic actors: Jeanne Moreau, Marcello Mastroianni, and Antonioni's muse Monica Vitti. They are all wonderful here, and they make the movie a more immediately engaging film than L'Avventura, even if it is more subtle and less audacious. I love Moreau to death in Jules and Jim, but her character her is equally engaging and yet very different. The final scene is so emotional and real, a perfect ending.

La Notte is perhaps best compared to Kubrick's final masterpiece, Eyes Wide Shut. Both films revolve around a married couple that has lost their passion for each other. They have reached the point where intimacy becomes dullness. One night throws all of that into disarray, and they are left with only one option - fucking. The films are equally dark, but La Notte never feels like the dream Eyes Wide Shut is constantly flirting with. It's a very real film, but with a sharp psychological edge that makes it a compelling portrait of a broken marriage and two lonely people desperate for a connection. It might not have the remarkable vision and ambition of L'Avventura, but its a masterpiece in its own right.

Monday, August 12, 2013

#661: Marketa Lazarová

(František Vlácil, 1967)

Marketa Lazarová is a beautiful film - perhaps one of the most beautiful in the Collection. Unfortunately, it's also extremely opaque and complex, making it a difficult film to fully comprehend on a first watch. In fact, I watched the film nearly a month ago, but every time I go to write a review I end up being somewhat unsure of what I watched, which leads me to seek out one more article about it online to read more about its creation and reception.

There are two things that immediately jump out at me about this once-forgotten Czech film that has slowly become one of the most praised in its country and, with this release especially, is now ready to enter the canon of world cinema. The first is just how poorly acted the film is, particularly in comparison to its expert filmmaking. Seeing a truly gorgeous and masterfully directed movie featuring actors who frequently take you out of the film is a strange experience, a study in contrasts when the limitations of auteurism are laid bare. When you are working with people that really shouldn't be in movies, even the greatest cinematography can't cover it up.

Second, seeing the film in its modern context - and essentially watching a movie being elevated to the near-upper echelon of cinema - is fascinating, especially when it's a film I didn't especially care for. Part of my negative feelings toward it certainly come from my own limitations with these types of historical, highly literate and impressionistic narratives. Alexander Nevsky, another difficult presumed masterpiece from behind the Iron Curtain, springs to mind as a comparison - though that film has long been in the canon, while this one is merely storming the gates. But I think another big part of it is just my lack of engagement with the story, which I find extremely antiquated and almost wholly irrelevant to modern times. For this reason, its elevation over the last decade fascinates me because it is clearly not coming from a reassessment of the film's relevance (like, say, Vertigo) but rather from a new appreciation of its technique, and a sort of intellectual guilt over the idea that it was once passed over by the cultural gatekeepers.

Marketa Lazarová is certainly worth seeing (it's on Hulu), if only for how breathtaking its visuals are. But the vast majority of people are going to have a difficult time hanging with the narrative, if only because it's difficult to see from outside its cultural context how the film can possibly connect on an emotional level.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

#655: Pierre Etaix

(Pierre Etaix, 1963-1971)

Criterion's Pierre Etaix boxset is going to be a revelation for just about anyone interested in digging into it. As a filmmaker, Etaix ranks somewhere between "occasionally listed as influential" and "totally forgotten," especially considering the fact that he hails from one of the highest profile cinematic countries. But a combination of rights issues, poor championing, and a career that existed primarily during an era when his light touch was not in line with the dominant radical tastes of the cinematic elite has left Etaix in a position totally undeserving of his talent. This set should reverse that.

While I wouldn't put Etaix on quite the same level as Tati, the comparison is not without merit. Both directors have relatively small catalogs, and both operate in light, mostly visual humor with a sharp satirical bend that gives their work more heft. At his best, most specifically with Yoyo, the absolute masterpiece in the set and a solid candidate for best comedy of the 60s, Etaix can rival Tati in his deft delivery and execution. Some jokes in these films are truly sublime - as a part-time comedian, I found myself in awe of Etaix's ideas and ability to execute them multiple times. This is comedy in its highest form.

Of the five full-length films included here, the only one I didn't especially care for was The Land of Milk and Honey. After a promising opening, the footage Etaix shot never really comes together. And his talent lies in his impeccable execution so much that the documentary format takes away from his perfectionism, making him less special. His four fiction full-length are pretty consistently enjoyable, even As Long As You've Got Your Health, which is essentially a series of mostly silent shorts cobbled together. As a whole body of work, it's extremely impressive, and while his style is somewhat tied to his era, it would have been really wonderful to see him evolve into the 70s, 80s, and even 90s (Etaix is still alive, and contributes to the box). As it stands, this must be one of the most underrated comedic voices in film. Don't overlook this set.